Recent Sermons

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Date Title (Scripture Reference)
November 5, 2017 The Dividing Line of History
(Matthew 25:1-13) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] I have a few things in my bag this morning that can help us understand what it might be like to be poor. First, I have an apple. This apple represents the food a person needs every day. Second, I have a band aid. The band aid represents the health care people need to stay healthy. Third, I have a book. The book represents an education.

So if someone has enough money, they can afford all three of these things, and that is really good. But what happens if you are poor and you can only afford one or two of these things? Let’s suppose you are a poor farmer and your crops don’t do well. Then you don’t have enough food [puts the apple in the bag]. But if you don’t have enough food, you get sick easier [puts the band aid in the bag] and it makes it harder to concentrate at school and to learn things [puts the book in the bag]. But let’s say you have enough food and access to a doctor, but you can’t afford an education? Well, then you have trouble getting a good job, and then you find it more difficult to buy enough food and to pay for the doctor. Or let’s say you have food and you can go to school, but you can’t afford the doctor. Well, then when you get sick. You see how it is important to have all three? To live well everyone needs food, health care, and education.

In Psalm 103 the Psalmist says:

Praise the Lord, my soul; / all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

Praise the Lord, my soul, / and forget not all his benefits—

who forgives all your sins / and heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit / and crowns you with love and compassion,

who satisfies your desires with good things / so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works righteousness / and justice for all the oppressed.

God cares about our whole selves. He not only wants us to worship him. He cares not only for our souls, but also for our bodies. He heals our diseases. He satisfies our desires with good things. He wants us to have enough food and to have an education so that we can know more about him and his world. And because God cares about our whole selves, we should also care about the whole selves of other people. We should help those who are poor so they can have food, health care, and an education.

So does anyone know what day this is today? It is World Hunger Sunday. And maybe some of you have been reading stories all week about how World Renew helps people have enough food, education, and health care. And maybe some of you have been putting money into a Peter Fish. If so, as you leave for children’s worship, you can bring your Peter Fish up to the table and leave it as an offering to God for the world of World Renew. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

This morning we are recognizing World Hunger Sunday. We will be taking a collection during the offertory for the work of World Renew. For those of you new to Hessel Park, World Renew is a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church that works around the world to help people in poverty. They have three main aspects to their work. First, they support community development in poor communities in 30 different countries. They work with local organizations to develop health programs, small income generation programs, literacy programs, and the like. As a church we particularly support Leanne Geisterfer who oversees all the work World Renew is doing throughout Latin America. Second, World Renew provides immediate and medium range responses to natural disasters and human crises. For instance, they are providing help in response to the recent hurricanes and also relief to the Rhohingyan and Syrian refugees. Third, World Renew advocates for justice and peace around issues such as human trafficking, creation care, gender issues, and refugees.

World Renew thus addresses poverty from a holistic perspective. They address both short term and long term causes of poverty, while they also address poverty in terms of it communal, political and social aspects. They work in areas promoting health care, agriculture, education, and income generation. Moreover, their approach is holistic because they also work with churches and Christian organizations that connect all these areas with our relationship to God

I wonder, however, how well World Relief will do with this campaign this year. Over the last few months World Renew has put out special pleas for donations to help with the relief work they are doing after the hurricanes. I wonder if some of us get rather tired working for and thinking about justice all the time. I wonder if we and other donors might be suffering from donor fatigue. Do you ever suffer from volunteer fatigue? There are so many causes and concerns that call for our support. How are we ever to meet all the needs and respond to all the demands for our time, our prayers, and out money?

Well, let’s take a look at this parable that Jesus tells his disciples. Ten bridesmaids are set to go and meet the groom and escort him to the wedding party as was the custom in those days. Five of the bridesmaids are foolish and bring no oil with them, and five are wise and bring extra oil along. They wait and they wait. .But the groom is late in coming. He is so late in coming all ten of the bridesmaids, the foolish and the wise, fall asleep.

Let me suggest that this is akin to our predicament. The groom is late in coming. We must continue to work for justice. We must continue to stand up for the oppressed. We must continue to seek peace in the world because the groom, Jesus, is late in coming. The following parable repeats the same theme. A wealthy man entrusts his property to his servants and goes away on a trip, but he is a long time in coming. In the third parable the true nature of Jesus is revealed. The Son of Man returns as the King in all his glory. God began a work in Jesus Christ. He acclaimed Jesus as our Lord, our Savior, and the King of all creation. But then Jesus ascended into heaven. He reigns, but his authority is not recognized everywhere. Many still live in rebellion against him. Thus we continue to have injustice and oppression here on earth. Jesus is a long time in coming.

So what is the good news in this parable? It seems mostly to be a parable of warning and judgment. Don’t be like those foolish bridesmaids, or else you too will be shut out of the party. The good news, however, is that we, like all ten bridesmaids, have been invited to the party. Foolish or wise, we have all been asked to play a part in the celebration. God has begun a new work in Jesus Christ. Jesus has ascended into heaven and he is a long time in coming, but we have been asked to play a role in what God is doing in Jesus Christ. We have been given a torch.

Second, the good news is that Jesus is coming. Jesus may be a long time in coming, but he is coming. God has begun a new thing in Jesus. He has inaugurated his kingdom through his ministry, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension to the throne. He has gone away for a time. But his has not left us empty handed. He has empowered us with the gift of his Spirit. Paul says the Spirit is like a down payment. It is assurance, a guarantee that Jesus will return. He has also us give us his written word in which he promises to be with us always until he returns again. Though Jesus is a long time in coming, we have been given all these assurances that he will come again and make all things new.

So what is the oil that the wise bridesmaids take with them? What is it that makes the difference between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids? It is generally agreed by biblical scholars that we shouldn’t interpret Jesus’ parables as mere allegories, as if different pieces of the parable stand for different things in our reality. The danger of this is that then you can make the oil out to be whatever you want it to be. You could argue that the oil is just mere faith in Jesus. Or maybe it is being active in evangelism or working for justice. Maybe it is following particular rules that some church tradition finds particularly important. The problem is that there isn’t really anything in the text itself to say whether one interpretation is right or wrong. We are called to do all these things.

The point of the parable, however, is simply that the wise bridesmaids were prepared for the groom’s delay and the foolish were not. To be wise, to have oil for your lamp, is simply to take the long view. It is to expect that Jesus may arrive at any time, but also that he may tarry for much longer. Now we moderns have resources our ancient brothers and sisters did not have. Scientists estimate that the universe is 13.772 billion years old. That means God took his good sweet old time, about 13.7718 billion years, to even getting around to creating human beings. Humans have only been around about 200,000 years. And we have only been civilized for 6,000. It has been 2,000 years since Jesus walked this earth. That is a blink of an eye to God. Jesus may be long in coming from our perspective. But, to paraphrase the wizard Gandalf, God is never late. He is always right on time. We need to take along oil for our lamps and expect Jesus to come in his time.

Wendell Berry, a poet, essayist, and novelist, can help us take the long view of things. He once wrote, “Whatever is foreseen in joy / must be lived out from day to day.”[1] That is, if we truly long for Jesus’ return, if we truly long for his peace and justice, if we truly long for his kingdom, then we must live out his kingdom of peace and justice from day to day. Every day we must learn to simply live for peace and justice.

In his poem called Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, Berry describes what I think is the difference between wise and foolish living and waiting. First, a warning to the foolish:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

In other words, live according to our short term, fast-paced, consumeristic, and materialistic culture and you will be a fool. You will be played by the corporations as simply a cog in the wheels of consumption, a machine to which you will one day be sacrificed.

But second, wisdom for the wise:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Practice resurrection.[2]

Friends, you have been invited to the party, to the feast of the Messiah which we will celebrate when Jesus comes again. You have been given a part to play. You have been called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, “to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Take along some oil for your torch. Expect Jesus to return tomorrow or in a thousand years. Sow the seeds of education by volunteering at Books to Prisoners. Invest in the next generation by giving to Orphan’s Treasure Box or the Champaign/Urbana Schools Foundation. Sow the seeds of peace and justice. Take joy in the fact that our children and grandchildren will reap the harvest of what we have sown today. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Silence]

Almighty God, we thank you for the work you are doing around the world and in our won community through organizations like World Renew that promote justice and help to alleviate poverty. May we long for the joy foreseen in your kingdom by living for peace and justice each and every day. Amen.


[1] Wendell Berry, “Whatever is foreseen in joy,” in Sabbaths (San Fransisco: North Point Press, 1987), 19.

[2] “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry

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October 15, 2017 Hospitality: Practicing Reconciliation
(Matthew 22:1-14; Isaiah 25:1-9) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s worship] Did you know that many years ago Roxann and I lived in the country of Ecuador? Ecuador is on in South America and we worked with an organization that helped poor villages set up a health programs for their communities. One day we went to visit several villages to speak to the leaders of these community health programs. We arrived in the first village and the leader invited us into her home. Now she was poor as was the whole village. The walls of her house were made of dirt and they had hay or grass for the roof. But inside she had a table with a few chairs and on the stove she had a pot of soup cooking. She invited us to sit down, and before we could say anything she had a bowl of chicken and potato soup sitting before each of us.

Now we all knew that this was her family’s main meal for the day. We knew that she was being very kind and generous in giving us a bowl of her soup. So, what do you think? What would you do in that situation? Would you eat the soup? Even though she was poor, we knew that if we refused to eat the soup, she would be very offended and hurt. She offered us the soup because that is just what her people did. They offered food to guests. We knew that the right thing to do was to eat the soup.

Well, when we were done, we went to the next village and the same thing happened. And then we went to the next village, and the same thing happened again. Each time Roxann kept giving me her potatoes and her chicken. But even though we were full, we knew that to be a good guest we had to eat what was set before us. We knew that we should honor these ladies who were being so kind and generous.

Jesus once said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.”  Well the king finally sent his servants out to gather up anyone they could find to fill his banquet hall because those originally invited refused to come. God is inviting all of us into the kingdom as well through Jesus. To be a follower of Jesus is to be a good guest. To be a follower of Jesus is to receive what God wants to give us with joy and thankfulness. [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

You have been invited to a party. But not just any ordinary party. This bodes to be the biggest and greatest, the most lavish and opulent party you have ever been to. You have been invited to the feast at the end of the age. It will be on the Mountain of the Lord, on Mount Zion, in the New Jerusalem. You have been invited to the feast of the Messiah. How will you respond? Will you accept the invitation?

If you accept the invitation,, when you get there, you will see people streaming in from every land and every tongue and every tribe. As Jesus says, “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their place at the feast in the Kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). They will all be dressed in their finest clothes; westerners in business suits, the Japanese in Kimonos, others in saris, flowing dresses, woven skirts.

When you enter, the doorman will take your cloak. As he takes it you noticed that it turns into an old, filthy, heavy rag. You feel the weight of all that you have feared, all the loneliness you have ever felt, your weaknesses and your impotence, you feel the weight of all that bore the stench of death lifted off your shoulders.

A second attendant takes you by the hand and leads you to a wash basin. You begin washing your hands. The water turns black as the shame for all the hurt and pain you have caused others, all the shame for all the lies you have told, all the shame from all the times you failed to speak up for someone, all the shame for the cruel things you have said, all the shame washes out and down the drain. The water turns brown as all the shame from all the pain and hurt you have caused yourself, all the times you believed that you were not good enough, or that you were not worthy of being loved, and all the shame you feel for your arrogance and pride and self-centeredness, all of that shame you have caused yourself washes off and down the drain.

By now tears are streaming down your face. The attendant hands you a wash cloth. You place it under the water and bring up to your face. When it touches your face you feel all of the sorrow from all of your years flowing out of you. All of the sorrow for those who failed you, and all the sorrow for those you have failed. All of the sorrow for those you hurt, and all the sorrow for those who hurt you. All of the sorrow for those who left you and for those you left behind. All of the sorrow for the roads not taken. All the sorrow for the shortcuts that turned into dead ends. All the sorrow that was deposited into the well of your heart flows out and is washed away.

The attendant takes you by the hand again and leads you, famished and absolutely drained, into the next room. You sit at a huge table and plates of the finest foods are brought out. As you eat you are filled again with strength. For the first time in your life you feel truly and fully loved by God. Your sins and sorrow and shame washed away you are at ease for you know whose you are. You take a drink of the wine. As you relish its deep yet subtle flavors you look around at the people next to you. For the first time in your life you are filled with an absolute and selfless love for others. Your heart fills with joy and contentment for you have finally and truly come home.

You take another sip of wine and think of the words of Isaiah:

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wines – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfold all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the shame of his people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.

The feast pictured in Isaiah gives the people of Israel a glimpse of the age to come as a foretaste of the joy they will feel when they return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. In that feast they will celebrate the end of their shame, the end of their sorrow, the end of their exile from their homeland, the end of their separation from God. At the feast at the end of the age all peoples will gather to celebrate their own return from exile, the forgiveness for their sin, their reconciliation with God, and the end of sorrow, disgrace and death. My friends, you are invited to that banquet in the Kingdom of God.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus picks up on the image of a feast that marks the end of this age and the beginning of the new. He says it will be like a king who has prepared a banquet to celebrate the wedding of his son. The king has prepared a banquet, and he has invited the entire kingdom, as it were, to attend.

We have been looking at the topic of reconciliation over the past few weeks and we have seen how the biblical story culminates in God’s reconciliation with humanity and the world. The story begins with humanity turning away from God and being exiled from God and the garden. The story thus culminates with God coming to humanity first in Jesus and then in the New Jerusalem so that God will dwell with humanity. In both Isaiah and Jesus’ parable, people experience reconciliation with God in terms of hospitality. God’s reconciliation with us, his dwelling with us will be something like a huge party, a great feast, a banquet of the finest meats and the rarest of wines.

Well, if we will experience the new age as God’s hospitality, Jesus poses the question: how will those who are reconciled to God respond to God’s hospitality? You can be hospitable as a host – preparing a nice meal, making sure you have your guests’ favorite wine, making sure your guests are comfortable, and so on. Hospitable can mean being welcoming and generous to guests, but it can also mean “offering a supportive or sustaining environment,” and “being readily receptive.” I don’t know if there is a better word for it, but I think it is helpful to think of two sides of hospitality. There is the hospitality of the host, the generous giving and providing for the guest, and the hospitality of the guest, the grateful and open reception of what is offered by the host. If God’s act of reconciling himself to us and the world is characterized by the hospitality of God, our role is to be the hospitable guest. It is to be the one who receives openly, graciously, and with gratitude.

That, however, is not how the parable goes. The invited guests refuse to come and some even mistreat and kill the King’s servants. We may be shocked by the harsh punishments the king meets out in the parable, but think for a moment about what it means to be an inhospitable guest. Think about what it means to refuse the hospitality of a host, and not just any host, but a king, and not just any king, but God himself. What does it mean to refuse the hospitality of God?

In my children’s sermon I told the story of how Roxann and I had to eat four bowls of soup with countless potatoes in an afternoon so as not to offend our hosts. While it would have been rude to refuse, it would have meant much more. It would have emphasized the difference between us and our hosts in ways that would bring shame upon them. If we refused, it would have emphasized the fact that we were the white people, we were the wealthy people, and we were the ones with education and resources. It would have said that we were not in need of their generous offer of food. Refusing would have been not only rude but offensive because it would have shown who had power and who didn’t.

Refusing a King’s invitation is also not only rude, it is a power play. Those who refuse the King’s invitation are sending the message that they do not need or want the protection, the governance, and the justice the king provides. While some send a subtle message be simply refusing the invitation, others send the message loud and clear by mistreating his servants and even killing them. Their refusal is not just rude, it is an act of rebellion.

Similarly, the man who is caught not wearing wedding clothes is not only being rude in breaking convention, he is flouting the king’s power. Imagine you have invited a group of friends and colleagues over to your house. You have a nice dinner, and then one of your guests leans back in his chair and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. You kindly ask your guest to step outside to smoke because your daughter has asthma. But he continues to light up and says through a puff of smoke, “Oh a cigarette or two won’t kill her.” Your guest is not only being rude, he is making a power play. He is demonstrating his ability to disregard your rules and your wishes. He is daring you to make a scene, but he is arrogantly sure that he will win.

If we refuse to be hospitable guests with God, if we refuse to accept his hospitality, we are not reconciled to God. In refusing his hospitality, we set ourselves up against God and commit the same sin that sent humanity into exile in the first place. But can you imagine refusing the hospitality of God? You have been invited to the feast in the kingdom of God where you will feast on the finest meats and drink of aged wine? All the shame and sorrow you have ever felt will be wiped off your face, and the shroud of death will be removed from your shoulders. Won’t you accept?

Last week I argued that justice and worship were two tasks that continued the process of reconciliation, or maybe helped define the nature of the relationship between those who have been reconciled. Hospitality also characterizes the relationship between those who have been reconciled. In our reconciliation with God, we recognize that he is the host. He is the one calling us, bringing us, and welcoming us home. He opens up the doors of the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God, and everlasting life to us. To live into God’s welcome, we too must show hospitality and respond with a generous and open receptiveness. In other words we must finally live with him as our God, Lord and King, and we his people, servants, and children. Reconciled with God, we must seek reconciliation with others.

When we think of reconciliation among us as human beings, I think this notion of hospitality and the implications of power within hospitality are instructive. The extent and nature of our hospitality indicates the nature and extent of our reconciliation with others. In the United States we, and by “we,” I mean my group of “we,” we white, wealthy men, at least some of us, have worked toward reconciliation with ethnic minorities, with women, and with the poor, by seeking to welcome them some way into our sphere of influence. Reconciliation, we think, means that they come to be more like us.

The problem with this mind set is that it leaves the power structure which has caused the oppression of minorities, women, and the poor intact. If white, rich men are the hosts of the reconciliation process, we remain in control. “Reconciliation” proceeds at a pace and on the terms that are comfortable with us. Thus it doesn’t proceed very fast if at all, and it sometimes regresses. As we saw a few weeks ago, our reconciliation with God, levels the playing field between humans. It equalizes us, for we all stand on the same level before God, merely by his generosity and grace. For true reconciliation to happen there has to be a reversal of roles between males and females, whites and minorities, and rich and poor. Does not Jesus repeat over and over again, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?” For reconciliation to happen, the host must become the guest, and the guest the host.

The thing is that the power structures around race, gender and class are deeply embedded in our culture and our language. Take, for instance, how we speak about rape and domestic abuse. Jason Katz, an activist on these issues, writes about how the use of the passive voice has serious consequences when we talk about rape and abuse:

We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.

[T]he use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys and onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction; there’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them…Men aren’t even a part of it![1]

Part of being hospitable and moving towards reconciliation in this matter is for men to give up setting the table for the conversation. Men need to stop dictating the terms and the voice of the conversation. I struggle with how to say this because if I say that men need to allow women to set the table, then that still leaves men in a position of power. Rather, men need to come to the table being set by women. Similarly, and here you may also find yourself if not a man, the rich need to come to the table set by the poor, and whites to the table set by minorities. For the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

My friends, you have been invited to the feast in the Kingdom of God where you will know deep in your soul that all of your sin, all your shame, all your sorrow was washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ. And death will be no more. Will you accept? In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

Almighty God, in Jesus Christ you have forgiven us and set us free from the power of sin and death. Instill in us a hope for your Kingdom that we may begin living as your grateful and receptive guests. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.



[1] Quoted in Tim Haverda, “The Language of Gender Violence, Jackson Katz,” Philosophical Fragments (blog), June 7, 2017, https://timothyhaverda.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/the-language-of-gender-violence-jackson-katz/. See also Jackson Katz’s TED talk: “Violence against women – It’s a men’s issue,” November, 2012. https://www.ted.com/talks/jackson_katz_violence_against_women_it_s_a_men_s_issue#t-1044943

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October 8, 2017 Justice and (True) Worship: The Tasks of the Reconciled
(Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s worship] One Saturday morning José woke up early. He got himself dressed and was downstairs even before his mom had set out the bowls and cereal for breakfast. This was the day that his grandma was coming. He wanted to be ready when she arrived so that they could spend the whole day together.

José ate quickly. He bushed his teeth, combed his hair, and washed his face. As he came down the stairs he heard the doorbell and ran to open the door for his grandma.  “So what do you want to do today?” his grandma asked. “We could go to the park. We could go to the zoo. We could go for a bike ride. We could go to a movie.” “I don’t know, Grandma. What do you want to do?” José asked. And so they went back and forth. What do you want to do? I don’t know, what do you want to do? Until Grandma finally got a bit fed up and said, “Now this is your day, so you choose. What do you want to do?”  “I don’t really care, Grandma. I just want to spend time with you.”

Do you ever feel that way about anyone? Maybe your mom or dad, or a friend, or your grandma or grandpa. You don’t really care what you do with them. The important things is to just be with them.

You know, that is why we come to church to worship each week. We do lots of things in worship. We sing. We read the Bible. We pray. But the main point of all of those things is that God wants to be with us, and he wants us to be with him. We believe that God is everywhere and that we can be with God any time. But when we come to worship, it is a special, dedicated time when being with God is the most important thing. [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

Over the past few weeks we have looked at various aspects of reconciliation, mostly about the process of reconciliation. We have looked at how the cost of reconciliation is death, that we must die, in a sense to ourselves as we confess our sins to God, in order to be reconciled to God. And how the cost of our reconciliation to God for God was also death, for Jesus died on our behalf in order to reconcile us to God. Similarly, last week we saw how humility was the means of reconciliation, that we have to put aside our pride and look at things from the other person’s perspective to bring about reconciliation. More so, God, in Jesus, humbled himself and took up our very form and nature for the sake of reconciliation.

In terms of our reconciliation with each other, we have seen how God’s mercy on us, our reconciliation with God, is the source of our reconciliation with others. Reconciling with God brings us into communion with God and thus into communion with all who have been reconciled with God. Reconciliation with God also brings equity among us, for we are all only reconciled to God because of his mercy and generosity.

This morning we begin looking more at the “what then” of reconciliation. If we are reconciled to God, what then does that mean for our lives? This week we will look at two tasks of the reconciled – justice and worship. And next week at one of the practices of reconciliation – hospitality. This is how we live out of our reconciliation with God.

In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus draws upon the image of Israel as God’s vineyard found in our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 5, and Psalm 80.  In Isaiah and Matthew the fruit of the vineyard is key to each passage. In Isaiah, God comes to look for fruit, for good grapes, but he finds only bad fruit, sour grapes, if you will. In Matthew, the owner of the vineyard sends his servants and finally his own son to collect the fruit, only to have first his servants and then his son killed by the tenants of the vineyard. In all three texts, the vineyard is, or will be, laid bare and destroyed as a judgment upon Israel. So it begs the questions, what is the fruit God is looking for? What are the good grapes the son has come to collect? What has Israel failed to produce for God?

From a broad biblical perspective, this question can be rephrased, what are the tasks of God’s people? In terms of this sermon series, it is fair to phrase this as, “What are the tasks of the reconciled?”  God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt. He formed a covenant with her to be her God and for Israel to be his people. He cleared a land for her, and planted her in Canaan. What then, are the covenant stipulations for Israel? How, then, was Israel to live with God as their God, as the people of God? While there are others aspects to Israel’s task, let me raise up two that Isaiah highlights in and around Isaiah 5, and that Jesus, or Matthew, raises, in and around the parable of the Tenants: justice and worship.

Within the text from Isaiah, the task for Israel is to establish and maintain justice in the land. Verse 7, “he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” Other examples of injustice abound preceding and following our text. Verse 8, “Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone on the land.” The implication being that the rich have crowded out the poor by taking over all the land. You can page through the first chapters of Isaiah to find numerous examples of Israel’s injustice.

Injustice also appears within Jesus’ parable in the mistreatment and blatant murder of the owner’s servants and even of his son. Within the larger context of Matthew, I believe that Jesus calls out the injustice of the religious elite when he clears the temple of the money changers who are probably cheating the poor for Jesus says, “My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.” Jesus then tends to the poor and sick, healing the blind and the lame that come to him, demonstrating what justice and true worship look like. At the end of this section in chapter 23:23, Jesus chastises the religious leaders, “You give a tenth of your spices … But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.”

Within Jesus’ parable, however, the main task that he accuses Israel of failing to do is simply to receive and to listen to God’s servants. That, in a word, is a failure of proper worship. Instead of properly worshipping God in the temple, they have committed injustice in the temple. Likewise, Isaiah opens his book with a judgement against Israel for their false worship. He goes so far as to call Israel “Sodom” and “Gomorrah,” and says, “”The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me? … I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. … Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me” (1:10-13).

Let me suggest that maintaining justice and proper worship are two tasks of the reconciled because they simply carry on the process of reconciliation. If we are in need of being reconciled to God, if we have sinned against God, we have dishonored God, we have not treated God with the worth he is due. Worship is giving God his due. It is honoring him. As I said in the children’s sermon, it is taking time to be with him. While we are with God in worship we listen to him, praise him, thank him, confess to him, and receive from him. When we are reconciled to God we are rejoined to him. We are brought back into communion with him. Worship is the ongoing rejoining and communing with God.

Likewise, if we have sinned against our neighbor, we have not treated them with the worth they deserve. We have treated them unjustly. Full reconciliation and communion with our neighbor, thus requires justice be reinstated between us. The task of those who are reconciled to each other is thus to maintain justice. In a broader sense, then, those who are reconciled to God are called to seek justice where there is oppression and injustice within society. So justice and worship carry on the process of reconciliation.

I have preached frequently on justice. It is a frequent theme in scripture. And so this morning I will focus on worship.

When John Calvin reformed the liturgy of his church in Geneva he looked to two sources, the Bible and the early church. The form of worship we have therefore derives from the practices of worship we see evident in scripture and in the wisdom of the church throughout the ages. It should be noted as well that the form of worship followed by the early church was derived from the form of worship practiced in the Jewish synagogues. The first Christians were Jewish and God-fearing Greeks and so they continued to worship in the synagogues. The split between Christianity and Judaism happened gradually over the first century and so Christians continued many of the practices and forms of worship they knew from the synagogue.[1]  

Let's look at the five main sections or acts of worship.

Gathering – Confession – Word of God – Kingdom Feast – Sending / Commission

Now, while there is no set script of worship available to us in scripture, this ancient form of worship that we follow is wise because it is fitting to the occasion. In the first act of worship we are summoned into the presence of God, into the presence of our creator, our Lord, our Master, our King. We thus begin our worship with God’s call to worship and his greeting. We are gathered at his initiative and thus it is fitting that we respond with praise and thanksgiving and an opening up to God, a willingness to receive from God. Our initial prayer to God is therefore the invocation, a calling upon God that God be present with us through his Spirit so that the Spirit may transform our hearts in and through our worship.

It is thus fitting that our next act in worship is the confession of sin. In the presence of a Holy God, our frailty, brokenness, and sinfulness are laid bare. Worship, as I said earlier, is the ongoing process of reconciliation. We therefore confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness. We are assured of our reconciliation with God so we hear God’s law, his will for how we ought to live as his reconciled people.

The next act of worship is the hearing of God’s word. In the hearing of the word, we enter again into the story of God reconciling the world to himself through Israel, through Jesus, and now through the church because we have been baptized into Christ. In the hearing of the word we receive the grace of God as we hear of what God has done for his people and for the world. God is gracious to us so that we may be instruments of his grace in the world. As God first spoke the creation into being, and then began the recreation of the world through the sending and in-fleshing of his Word, Jesus Christ, so we believe that the hearing of God’s word in worship is an act of recreation in us. It is through the proclamation of the good news of kingdom, the gospel of Jesus Christ, that those who have turned away from God repent and are reconciled to God. So too, it is in the hearing of God’s story that our hearts are formed and shaped by God’s Spirit and thus God’s word, in a sense, takes on flesh in us.

After God’s word we celebrate the sacraments. While we believe that God is everywhere and can work through many things, we believe that by instituting baptism and the Lord’s Supper Jesus promised that his Spirit would be particularly present in them. A sacrament is a physical sign instituted by Christ through which the Spirit of Christ works. In baptism we are joined to Christ both in his death and his resurrection. In the Lord’s Supper, we remember what Christ has done for us through his death and resurrection, we receive all the benefits of his sacrifice, and we are assured of his constant presence with us until he comes again. The Lord’s Supper is a feast of thanksgiving that gives us a taste of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, this portion of the service, whether we celebrate the meal or not, is defined by thanksgiving in prayer, in song, and in our offerings.

As I said earlier, there is no set script for worship laid out in Scripture, but the script of worship is fitting to the occasion. One could argue, however, that the whole story of scripture is the script of our worship. The story of scripture is that God creates, we sinned, God redeems us, he then commissions us to participate in the story, and we look ahead to the final recreation. In worship we are gathered, we are reformed as the people of God, we confess our sins, we hear of our redemption, and in the Supper we have a taste of the coming Kingdom, and then, the final act of worship, we are commissioned. God blesses us and we are sent as the body of Christ into the world.

Gathering – Confession – Word of God – Kingdom Feast – Sending / Commission

Creation – Fall / Sin – Redemption – Commission – Recreation / Kingdom of God

A second important aspect of Christian worship is that it is congregational. God calls a people to himself. When we are joined to Christ in baptism we are joined to all who have been baptized into Christ. We are therefore called together to worship – men and women, rich and poor, young and old, American and Taiwanese, Korean and Indian, Indonesian and Chinese. It is good and important for each of us as individuals or in small groups to extend our Sunday worship into and throughout the week. But when I pray my daily prayers, I pray this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, “Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day. Preserve us with your almighty power that we may not fall into sin or be overcome by adversity, and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purposes, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”[2]

When we pray as individuals or in small groups, we pray on behalf of and with the whole people of God. We never pray merely as individuals.  Our prayers, our meditations, our reading of scripture are extensions of our life together and should thus connect us more closely to one another rather than isolate us from each other. Any prayer that connects us more closely to Christ binds us more closely to all those baptized into Christ. All prayer, all forms of true Christian worship, are thus congregational whether they are done on Sunday morning or in the privacy of your own home.

In Isaiah the people approached worship as though it were a quid pro quo arrangement. We do this for you, God, and you do this for us. We bring you sacrifices, and you bless us with good harvests and prosperity. Such worship was detestable to God. It was a stench in his nostrils for it reflected and precipitated the injustice within the society.

True worship, at its most basic, is time spent with God. It is time spent honoring God and giving him the praise and thanks and glory that are his due. It is time spent receiving from God. And so in that time spent with God, we are formed, we are shaped, we are inculcated into ways of being. Throughout the week, then, we act not out of a mere sense of duty to God, obeying his laws because we fear punishment, but we act out of our being, we act out of who God is making us to be. Worship, as an ongoing act of reconciliation with God, shapes us to act in the world with justice, to continue the ongoing act of reconciliation with our fellow human beings. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Silence

“Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day. Preserve us with your almighty power that we may not fall into sin or be overcome by adversity, and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purposes, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

                                



[1] See Robert E. Webber, Worship Old & New (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 56-58.

[2] The Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 2007), 137.

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October 1, 2017 Humility: The Means of Reconciliation
(Philippians 2:1-13) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Once upon a time there were two friends, Michelle and Mikala. They spent all there time together. It seemed almost as if Michelle was a part of Mikala’s family. She came over after school. She would stay for dinner. And on weekends she almost always stayed over at least one of the nights. Well one day Mikala said to Michelle, “I am bored. We always play at my house, but I am bored with my toys. Why don’t we go to your house tomorrow?” “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” replied Michelle. “You won’t like my toys.” “Sure I will,” said Mikala. “Let’s do it.” “No,” said Michelle. “We can’t.” “Why not?” “We just can’t” They went back and forth like this until they started shouting at each other. Mikala called Michelle selfish and some other names. Michelle burst into tears and ran all the way home.

When she got home, Michelle opened the back door and walked into the kitchen. Dishes from last night’s meal still cluttered the sink and the counter. She called out for her mom, but her sister called out from the living room, “She’s at work, stupid.” That is what her older sister always called her. Michelle had to agree that it was a stupid question because her mom was always at work, either at the Wal Mart or at the restraint where she waited tables. Michelle quickly walked through the living room where her sister lay sprawled on the couch watching TV. She didn’t want to let her sister see that she had been crying. But of course, as soon as she walked into their bedroom, her other sister, who sat on the bed doing her homework, looked up and said loudly, “Have you been crying? You were always such a cry baby.”

Michelle retreated to the only other room in her house, her mom’s bedroom. There she sat down on the floor and cried until there were no more tears. She felt mad, but mostly ashamed. How could she bring Mikala here? There would be no place to play. She didn’t have very many toys to play with anyway, and her two sisters would just tease them constantly.

When we get into arguments and disagreements with others, it is often because we don’t know the other person’s story. We don’t know why they believe what they believe. We don’t know why they say and do the things they do. Well the Apostle Paul wrote to a church in which some of the people had a disagreement, and this is what he told them, “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to you own interests but each to the interests of others.” In other words, try to understand what the other person wants and where they are coming from. If Mikala had known that Michelle didn’t want her to come to her house because she was ashamed, Mikala would never have insisted that they play at Michelle’s house. When we have disagreements with others, Paul urges us to be like Jesus, who, although he was God, he became human because we had sinned against God. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

In his letter to the church in Philippi Paul deals with two main issues. First, there is an outside threat to the church. This threat is the same threat Paul always combats, that of Jewish Christians who insist that the Gentile Christians become Jewish. Second, there is division within the church. Reconciliation is therefore one of the main themes of Paul’s letter. This may not seem so obvious because Paul doesn’t explicitly mention the division until chapter 4:

 “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

It may seem that this plea from Paul is just an added request as Paul wraps up his letter. “And, oh yeah, Euodia and Sntyche, stop fighting and get along.”  But notice how Paul frames this request. He calls for the help of someone named Syzygus, which means “yokefellow,” he emphasizes that these women have worked with Paul in the gospel in the past, he calls for help from Clement and other fellow workers. In the space of one sentence he reminds Euodia and Syntyche four times that they and others are fellow workers for Christ and the gospel.  So, rather than being just a side comment at the end of his letter, this is the conclusion of the letter. This is what Paul has been building up toward all along.

So let’s see how Paul gets to this conclusion. Paul often begins his letter with a greeting and a blessing followed by a prayer of thanksgiving. Now Paul will often use these opening pieces to point to the themes of his letters. So turn to chapter 1 and skim through the opening paragraphs and notice how often he uses the word “all.” “To all the saints in Christ Jesus.” V. 4 “In all my prayers for all of you. … (7) It is right to feel this way about all of you … all of you share in God’s grace with me. … I long for all of you.” Unity is thus a key theme of the letter.

Second, notice how he emphasizes both their partnership in the cause of the gospel, (verse 5) - they are fellow workers with Paul - and also Paul’s experience as one who contends for the gospel, verse 7, “whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel.” They are all partners with Paul in the cause of the gospel and this may lead to humiliating circumstances, such as Paul being arrested and put in chains.

Next, skim over the second half of chapter 1. Paul addresses several concerns here. The Philippians are concerned for Paul because he is in jail. They have sent him material and moral support. He wants to let them know that he is not defeated or dejected by his imprisonment. He wants to assure them that he is doing well. But more so, he wants to show them that the humiliation he is suffering for the sake of the gospel is actually being used by God for the advancement of the gospel. His imprisonment is not a defeat for God is the God of life, and death, and of resurrection. So Paul can say in verse 21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” For God can turn death into life.

Paul thus uses his own circumstance, his own humiliation suffered for the cause of the gospel, as a model for the Philippians to follow. He concludes the section in 1:27, but listen to this knowing that the context is, on the one hand the division in the church between Euodia and Syntyche, and, on the other, the need to remain united in the face of an outside threat to the church.

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then .. I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. … For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Remain united, Paul urges them, reconcile so that you can continue working together for the cause of the gospel.

We then come to our passage this morning, which, I would argue, is the climax of the letter. So far Paul has not explicitly mentioned the division between Euodia and Synthyche, but this theme of unity has infused everything Paul has said so far, but know he makes this plea for unity explicit. “Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.”

But what is the means of this unity? How does Paul urge them to remain united, and to seek reconciliation? “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”  Paul doesn’t tell them to just love the person they disagree with, or just to be kind to them, or to even to forgive them. He calls them to humility.

In the Webster’s dictionary humility and humble are defined negatively. That is they are defined by what they are not. Humility is defined as “Freedom from pride or arrogance,” and “the state of being humble,” which is positive, but humble is defined as “not proud or haughty,” so humility is “the state of not being proud.“ Paul first defines humility negatively, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.” Humility is not being proud and not being selfish.  He then puts it in positive terms, “value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”

To be humble is to look at things from the other person’s perspective, to walk in their shows a bit. It is to see what their needs and troubles and desires are. It is to put asides our tendency to think we know what is best. In our pride we think our perspective is the most logical and reasonable and moral perspective. Hiding under our pride, however, is our own desires, our own selfish ambition, our own vanity. When we only see things from our own perspective, in terms of our own interests, we create or enhance divisions with others. If others have a different perspective then they become wrong because we are obviously right.

But if in humility we value others as higher than ourselves, if we consider the possibility that they may not only have a different, but better perspective on things, then we open up the space for reconciliation. When both sides do this, then space for reconciliation opens up. Common ground is most often found. Understanding replaces disagreement and compromises are made more easily. Humility leads to reconciliation.

So when Paul is faced with a divided church, he calls the church to humility. He calls them to put aside their pride and their own positions and to seek the interests of the other party. But what about cases in which there is deep division. What do you do when the division is not between members of a church, but two opposing groups of people? How does Paul address the second issue in his letter, the threat from outside the church?

The answer is the same: humility. We already noted how Paul holds himself up as an example of humility in his work for the gospel that led to his imprisonment. If you read the book of Acts and the story behind Paul’s imprisonment, you will see that when Paul was accused by the Jews of breaking the law, he appealed to Caesar. But after his trial with King Agrippa, Agrippa concluded that Paul was innocent, saying, “this man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” In other words, Paul’s imprisonment was a choice made by Paul himself, a choice that was now being used by God to advance the gospel because it allowed Paul to proclaim the gospel before kings and governors and to the palace guards in Rome.

But Paul is merely imitating Christ, for Paul urges the Philippian church to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus

Who, being in very nature God,

    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself

    by becoming obedient to death—

        even death on a cross!

You see, when humanity stood opposed to God, when we followed our own ways and worshipped our own gods, God chose the path of humility in order to reconcile us to him. He came to now, he walked in our shoes, not to see things from our perspective, but to be with us, to suffer for us, and to demonstrate his abundant love for us. Therefore, when we proclaim the gospel to those who do not know God, and even to those who stand opposed to us and to God, we can do no less than to follow in the path of Christ, the path of humility so that they may come to see the love of God in Christ Jesus and be reconciled to God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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September 24, 2017 Equity: The Standard of Reconciliation
(Matthew 20:1-16) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Once upon a time there were three cups. A man came along one day and saw them sitting by the side of the rode. “Would you like to come and work for me? I will pay you each $100” the man asked “Yes, we would” they all replied. The man brought them to his house and into his kitchen. He told them he wanted them to fill up the pitchers that were sitting on the counter. So the first one when to work and got some water from the sink and poured it into one of the pitchers. (Pour three cups from font into a pitcher) The other two went to work as well. But while they were working, the first cup noticed something wrong. She noticed that when one cup filled herself up with water, the water immediately started spilling all over. (Pour three cups into pitcher). And what was worse, the third cup could hardly hold any water it had so many holes in its bottom (pour three cups into the third pitcher.) 

Well they worked for a while and the first cup couldn’t help noticing that she was filling more pitchers than the others. When the end of the day came, the man came into the kitchen and he noticed all the pitchers the first cup had filled, and then he noticed that the second cup had filled some pitchers, but not as many, and that the third cup had hardly filled any pitchers at all. He called the third one to him and paid him $100 dollars.

The other cups looked at each other and gave each other a knowing wink. But when the man gave the second cup $100 dollars and then the first cup $100, the first cup spoke up. “That’s not fair,” she said, “I filled all those pitchers, and this cup filled about half as many, but that other cup hardly filled any at all, yet you paid us all the same?  I should get more than the others.” But the man answered him, “I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for me? Didn’t I pay you what we agreed?  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my money? Why are you upset if I am generous to the others?”

Last week we saw that we are all like these cups. No one is perfect. We each have our own flaws. Well Jesus once told a story like this to teach us that God loves to be generous to everyone and he loves to have mercy on everyone no matter what our flaws. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.” Jesus begins the parable of the workers in the vineyard with the little word, “For.” That means that he tells this parable in order to comment on what he has just said. If you look back to chapter 19, you can see that the preceding material all begins with the question that the rich young man asks Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” That is, “How can I be assured that I am counted among the righteous at the coming of God’s kingdom? How can I be assured that I am in and not out?”

Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The young man is quite sure of himself and says that he has already kept them all. Jesus replies, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the man walks away dejected because he is very wealthy, Jesus says to his disciples “I tell you the truth, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The disciples are dismayed, “Who then can be saved?” they ask. Wealth, you see, was seen as a sign of righteousness. This man was obviously blessed by God. People looked up to him and expected him to be a righteous person. So Jesus tries to explain, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Peter responds, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”The rich young man comes to Jesus and asks, “What can I do to get eternal life?” Peter says, “Look at what we have done, Jesus. We have left everything like you said. Does that get us eternal life?” We all want to know what we can do to get eternal life. We all want to know how we can achieve eternal life.

We live in a society that values achievement. On the one hand we believe that we are what we achieve. On the other hand we assume, like the disciples, that those who are wealthy have achieved their success so also must be virtuous. Two stories to illustrate. Frist, the other night Roxann and I watched a quirky movie called Frances Ha, which tells the story of a struggling dancer in New York named Frances Halladay.[1] The film follows Frances as she moves from one apartment to another and in and out of various levels of friendship with her flat-mates. As only an apprentice in her dance company, and never a full member, she can’t afford to live on her own. Eventually the director of the company terminates Frances’ apprenticeship and offers her clerical work for the company. Frances refuses and her life spirals downward. She goes home to Sacramento, California for a few weeks, takes an uneventful two-day trip to Paris which bankrupts her, and then takes job working at her alma matter, Vassar College. There she lives in a dorm and works as part of the wait staff at the various events put on by the college for wealthy alumni. At age 27, she finds herself back at square one.

Humbled and desperate, Frances returns to New York and begs to live with a member of her old dance company. She takes up the clerical position at the company and begins work on choreographing her own dance show. The movie climaxes with the opening of her show which is attended by all her former friends and flat-mates. She is finally able to play host to those who have hosted her. The movie ends with Frances moving into her own apartment. She writes her name on a slip of paper, Frances Halladay, and slips it into the space on her mailbox. The space is too small, so it ends up reading “Frances Ha,” the title of the movie.

We live in a society that teaches us that we are what we achieve. Frances is never “home” until she attains some level of success. Before the opening of her own show, she is always striving after success, but never successful. She is always searching for a place to live, but never at home and always depending on the hospitality of others. Before she is a failing dancer, after she is a choreographer. She can only come home, she can only be a whole person after she achieves.

So we believe that we are what we achieve, but we also believe that those who are wealthy have achieved their success and are in some sense inherently virtuous. Mandy Rodgers-Gates, a student at Duke Divinity school, recently posted a commentary entitled, “To whom do we give second chances?” on the blog, Women in Theology.[2] Rodgers-Gates relates two recent stories that demonstrate the disparity between rich and poor, and black and white.

In the first, five football players from Wheaton College were recently charged with assault and kidnapping. In the spring of 2016 they grabbed a freshman student from his dorm, duct taped his arms and legs, dragged him out to a car, put a hood over his head, sat on him, punched and tormented him during the drive to a park. There they took him out into 45 degree weather, beat him some more, and then left him. They took his cell phone and he had no idea where he was or now to get back to the college. While this incident was made known to the administration at Wheaton, which supposedly dealt with the guilty football players, they all played in last weekend’s football game. They had obviously been given a second chance by the college, even though the young man they tormented left the school immediately and has had to have two surgeries to correct the damage done to his shoulders.

Rodgers-Gates contrasts the second chance given to these five, white, presumably wealthy football players with Michelle Jones. Jones grew up in an abusive home before being tossed around the foster care system. When she was 14, she was raped and became pregnant. Four years later she murdered her 4 year old son. She was convicted and spent 20 years in jail. While in jail she acquired an undergraduate degree in history and became a published scholar in American history. She applied to the Harvard Ph. D. program in history. She was initially accepted into the program, but then the offer was rescinded because some professors believed she didn’t show enough remorse for her crime.

So why is it that the five, white football players at a private college get a second chance, but not the black woman who has served 20 years for her crime? Rodgers-Gates writes, “U.S. society as a whole has come to associate suffering and poverty with vice, and wealth and status with virtue. … the powerful are transformed into the virtuous. And we are happy to give them second, third, fourth…an infinite number of chances, because we know they have it in them to change. But those on the outskirts of society? The poor? The struggling? The sick? They probably did something to deserve their lot.”

And so it is natural that we think that we have to achieve when it comes to our relationship with God, and that those who have succeeded in life have achieved in their relationship with God. And so when the rich young man feels he has followed all the important commandments, it makes sense that he wants to know what more must he do. Has he done enough? And when Jesus tells him to go and sell everything and then come and follow him, Peter thinks he and his buddies have found the key to eternal life. “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

Jesus assures them that “when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, … everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”

But then Jesus throws a curve into Peter’s calculus: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” Peter thinks he and his pals have done the utmost for Jesus. They have fulfilled the greatest commandment. They have left everything to follow Jesus. He thinks they will be first in line when Jesus hands out rewards to his followers in the age to come. He thinks they will be at the top of the heap.

So Jesus tells them this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius, [the usual amount for a day’s work] and he sent them into his vineyard.” The landowner found other workers around noon and some others around 5 O’clock and sent them all to work in his vineyard. At 6 O’clock he came to pay the workers. He paid the ones who arrived at 5 a denarius, and then the ones at noon a denarius, and then the ones who worked all day a single denarius. Incensed, the ones who worked all day complained that they only received a denarius like the others when they had borne the brunt of the work. “Take your pay and go,” the landowner said, “I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Again, Jesus concludes, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Jesus tells the disciples this story because they have missed the point of his interaction with the rich man. When Jesus says that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, the disciples wonder who then can be saved. Jesus responds, “With man this is impossible, but all things are possible with God.” The rich can’t buy their way into the kingdom and the righteous can’t earn their way into the kingdom. If it is impossible for the rich to achieve their way into the kingdom of God, it is impossible for everyone. Even for those who leave everything behind to follow Jesus. But all things are possible with God.

What Peter doesn’t understand is that he and his companions leave everything behind to follow Jesus because God has brought them into the kingdom. They don’t leave everything and follow Jesus to get into the kingdom. The only way you can leave everything behind is if you have already had a taste of the impossible that God does. The only way you will leave everything behind is if you have sensed that God has had mercy upon you.

And so, when we find ourselves in the kingdom, we will find ourselves there for two reasons. First we will be there because we were sinners, and second we will be there because God has had mercy on us. And there we will see Jesus giving a reward to a serial killer who repented on his way to the gallows. And we will then see Jesus giving the same reward to Mother Teresa for her years of leaving everything behind to serve the poor and to heal and comfort the sick and dying in the slums of Calcutta. For the last will be first, and the first will be last in the kingdom of God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence.

Almighty God, grant that we, like children, may receive your love with a simple faith and so have mercy on others as you have had on us. Amen.



[1] Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach, (ICF Films, 2012), film.

[2] Mandy Rodgers-Gates, “To Whom Do We Give Second Chances,” Women in Theology, September 19, 2017, https://womenintheology.org/2017/09/19/to-whom-do-we-give-second-chances/.

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September 17, 2017 God’s Mercy: The Source of Reconciliation
(Matthew 18:21-35) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there were two cups: a small, white styrofoam cup, and a larger, red plastic cup. The red cup noticed that the white cup always leaked water all over the counter. [Pours water into cup which has a slow drip.] “You are no good,” the red cup said to the white one. “Everyone knows that styrofoam is bad for the environment. It is brittle and breaks easy. You obviously won’t last long. And what’s more. You have a leak. What good is a cup that leaks?” [As water is poured into the red] And so the Red cup spent day after day taunting and teasing the white cup about how useless and worthless he was. [Water gushes out of the bottom of the red cup.] What do you all think of the red cup?

Once upon a time Peter asked Jesus, “How many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus then told this story:

There once was a Government official who owed the king a billion dollars, but he did not have the money. The king threatened to throw him in jail and to sell his wife and children into slavery. He begged the king for mercy. And the king forgave him and cancelled his debt.

Leaving the king, the Government official went and found a man who owed him a hundred dollars. He demanded that the man pay him back. But this man, too, did not have the money. The man begged the government official for mercy, but the government official had the man thrown into prison until he could pay him back.

When the king heard about this, he called the government official in and said, “You wicked servant. I cancelled the huge debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow man just as I had on you?” Then the king threw the man into prison.

If God has forgiven us of all of our sins, don’t you think we ought to forgive others if they sin against us? [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

 Have you ever had to forgive someone? Not for something small and petty, but for a real offense? It is easy to forgive minor offenses. Someone keeps getting your name wrong. A friend forgets to pay you pack for the dinner you bought. Another friend stands you up and you hear that they went and made plans with someone else. That’s really rude and hurtful, but it is still a pretty minor offense. But have you ever had to forgive someone for truly hurting you deeply? It isn’t easy, is it?

Peter asks a question that he thinks stretches the requirements of grace to their limits. “How many times should I forgive my brother or sister? Up to seven times? Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but seventy seven times.” Now Jesus doesn’t mean for us to keep track of someone who sins against us, counting up seventy seven so that we can stop forgiving the person and let them have it. Peter wants to know the limit of grace, but Jesus says, there is no limit on grace. Grace is not in limited supply. It is not a commodity that can be bought and sold.  It does not need to be rationed. 

Grace is not a commodity that is in short supply, but how we do we draw upon the well of grace? Forgiving others is difficult. It is hard enough to forgive someone who has sinned against you once, but seven times? Let alone an unlimited number of times? How does Jesus expect us to have the resources to forgive?

Some might say that we ought to just love other people. We read recently in Romans that love is the fulfillment of the Law. Even the Beatles knew that “all you need is love.” So we just need to recognize the basic goodness of all people and love them as Jesus commands us to love them.

But are we really able to do that? Do we have it in ourselves to love others that deeply and that unconditionally? Could we love someone enough to forgive them seventy-seven times? Or even seven times? Can our belief in the basic goodness of a person withstand the repeated evidence to the contrary if they continue to sin against us? How many times must someone sin before we start wondering if they really are basically good?

While Jesus does command us to love others, that is not his answer here. Rather, he tells the story of the unmerciful servant. Now what we have to realize is that this servant is no ordinary servant and the amount of money involved is no ordinary amount. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian and scholar, reported that the yearly taxes owed by Palestine to Rome amounted to 8 thousand talents. This is a huge amount of money.

We must therefore surmise that the man owed the king this money not because it was a personal loan, but because the money owed had to do with the responsibilities given the servant. In order to owe the king ten thousand talents, the servant must have been put in charge of some very important aspect of the kingdom. Maybe the servant was in charge of the kings mines. Maybe he was the port authority and collected all the tolls from the ships docking in the kingdoms harbors. Maybe we was the chief tax collector, overseeing the collection of taxes over the whole kingdom.

Third, we can then also surmise that there were several reasons why this man owed such a large amount. Ten thousand talents don’t just disappear without a trace. The man probably stole much, but he probably also mismanaged his post as well. The servant has probably both failed at his job and betrayed the king. The sin of this servant goes beyond the ten thousand talents. His sin is financial and personal. His sin is astronomical.

The king gets wind of the servant’s malfeasance and calls him in to give account. The servant knows he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. He is a traitor, a thief, and an incompetent servant. He does the only thing open to him. He begs for mercy. … And the king forgives him. The king not only forgives him of the money he owes, but he also forgives him for his betrayal, for his theft, and for his incompetence. The king’s mercy is limitless.

The other week I talked about the cost of reconciliation. Think about what this reconciliation has cost the king. It costs him ten thousand talents. It costs him the chance to demonstrate his justice, to show everyone that if you swindle and betray the king you will pay for it. But the king sets that all aside and he takes up the shame of being swindled, the shame of being betrayed, the shame of being dishonored. In a sense the king dies to himself in order to forgive his servant. Forgiveness is hard because it is costly. Where are we to find the resources to forgive?

Jesus’ point is that we are that servant. We have owed our king a fortune. We have all betrayed him and failed to pay our debt. But the king has shown us mercy. We all live at the mercy of God because of the grace of God.

Marjorie Thompson, a Presbyterian pastor and author, writes, “The capacity to identify with human sin to its outer reaches characterizes the humility and lack of judgmentalism present in so many holy ones throughout the centuries. Mercy for others grows from sorrowful knowledge of the human heart we share. The ability to acknowledge one’s own sin is thus a powerful path to forgiveness of others.”[1]

Forgiveness grows through our awareness of the universal human plight of sinfulness and that we each share in it. When we recognize and admit that we are sinners, that we have offended God and others, that we are no better than anyone else, and maybe worse than some, the pride in our judgementalism deflates. How can we point at others’ sins, when we share the same sinful heart? How can we not extend mercy, when we too are in need of mercy? The unmerciful have not been honest about their own need for mercy.

But, you might say, doesn’t that encourage a pessimistic and low view of humanity? If we are always focusing on our sins and the sins of others, won’t we grow to expect the worst in others? Won’t it be harder to love others if we have such a dim view of humanity?

Not necessarily. We humans, you, and I, have only sinned so greatly against God because of who he has made us. The servant’s sins were so astronomical because he had been given such a high position in the kingdom. He could not have sinned so greatly if he had been a mere street sweeper. We humans are made in the image of God. Like the servant, we have been given authority and responsibilities within God’s kingdom.

The psalmist says in Psalm 14, “The Lord looks down from heaven on all humankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (2-3). But the psalmist also says in Psalm 8, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is humankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet” (3-6).

Unless we appreciate what it means to be made in the image of God, we will never understand how grievous our sins are. We were made to reflect God’s glory. We were made to represent God within his creation. We were made to exercise God’s authority and execute his reign over the world. When we fail in our calling, when we sin our actions cast shame not only upon us, but upon God in whose name we act. And just as all humans were made in the image of God to represent God, so we Christians receive the body of Christ at the Lord’s Supper and are sent out as Christ’s body in the world. When we sin we shame God and Christ, the one who has already died for our sins.

Thompson says that mercy grows from the knowledge of our common sinfulness, but the soil of mercy is not our sinfulness, or the sinful human condition, but the mercy of God. When we not only admit our own sinfulness, that we are no better than anyone else, but also recognize the abundant grace God has showered upon us, then we are truly empowered to forgive others. When we recognize God’s grace for us, we truly know what Paul means when he says that we “live and move and have our being” in God. When we recognize the grace of God, then we live and move and have our being in the grace of God, and so we have an abundant resource of grace available to us.

The only limit to grace, so Jesus implies, is the limit we place upon it. If we refuse to live out of God’s grace, if we refuse to be merciful to others, then we have refused the grace of God. The unmerciful servant refuses to live in and out of the grace he has been offered, and so he places himself outside of the grace of the King. He has been forgiven, but because he does not live of this grace, he is not reconciled to the king. God’s grace not only brings us forgiveness but it also brings us back into a right relationship with God so that we begin to live in his image, reflecting his grace. If we refuse to forgive others, we have refused to live out of God’s grace and so have not been reconciled to God.

Our lives, you see, are completely gratuitous. It was God’s grace that caused us to be in the first place. There is no necessity in our lives. God did not need to make us. He did not need to make us in his image. It could have been otherwise with no damage to God. But God chose to give us life because he is a loving and gracious God. Our existence is based on his good will. It is gratuitous.

But so is the fact that, as the psalmist says in Psalm 103:

[God] does not treat us as our sins deserve

or repay us according to our iniquities.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

so great is his love for those who fear him;

as far as the east is from the west, 

so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

We live out of the grace of God because he created us, because he made us in his image, because he withholds his judgment upon us, and because he forgives us. When we recognize that God’s grace is the source of our very lives, then we are reconciled to God, then we have a limitless supply of grace with which to forgive others and to reconcile with them. We have no need to harbor anger, because God has turned his anger away from us. We have no need to see others suffer for their sins, because Jesus has suffered for us. We have no need to be repaid, because all we have and all anyone else has comes from the hand of God. And we have the humility to swallow the shame of being sinned against, because our glory is in a King who hung upon a cross. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Silent prayer and meditation]

God of mercy:

Help us to forgive, as you have forgiven us.

Help us to take up our cross daily

and follow you in your redeeming work;

through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.



[1] Marjorie Thompson, “Moving Toward Forgiveness,” Weavings ,quoted in John S. Mogabgab, Rueben P. Job, and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk with God (Upper Room Books, 2013), 279.

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September 10, 2017 Communion: The Goal of Reconciliation
(Matthew 18:12-20) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Jesus once told his disciples this parable: “If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”

This story teaches us how much God loves each one of us. It reminds us that he will go to great lengths to save everyone of his precious children. But Jesus tells us this parable not only to teach us about God, but also to encourage us to be like God. You know what Jesus says next? “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen, you have won them over.”

So what do you think you should do if a friend of yours did something mean to you? Should you do something mean back to them to get even with them? Should you tell everyone else how mean they were to you? Or should you do all that you can to heal your friendship? You know, Jesus says, “Where two or three people come together because of me, there I am with them.” That means that if you forgive your friend and you come together as friends again because you know that that is what Jesus would like you to do, that Jesus is present with you. [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

“Truly I tell you, that if two of you agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19). I think we all could have agreed yesterday to ask God to redirect Hurricane Irma back out to sea. I think we could all agree right now that a nuclear confrontation with North Korea be avoided. I think we could all agree that Israel and Palestine should come to a peace agreement. I think we could all agree that if one of our loved ones were sick, it would be good for them to get better. I think we could all agree that it would be good for all visitors who come to Hessel Park Church to hear a clear presentation of the good news of the Kingdom of God and to believe and trust that Jesus truly is Lord. We could all agree that Hessel Park should become for them a welcoming and encouraging community of brothers and sisters in Christ. Christians have a tendency to divide themselves over numerous things, but all of us here, let alone just two of us, could agree about these things and ask God in prayer for these things. Can we not expect then, that it will be done for us by our Father in heaven?

I imaging that this verse is at once a source of great comfort and hope to many Christians, but also a great stumbling block to many. It holds out such a great promise of God’s provision and care for us, but yet it is patently obvious that it can’t mean what it seems to so plainly say. We as Christians, in groups of two or three, as whole congregations, as whole denominations, agree on numerous things that we pray for week after week, yet they are not done for us by our Father in heaven.

Of course we will then do all kinds of theological gymnastics to explain how these words can still be true in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. We are not praying with enough faith. Our agreement must be in line with God’s will. Our prayers are selfish in nature and not concerned with the honor of God for the next verse says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” So our prayers go unanswered because we are somehow not truly gathered in the name of Jesus. … Or maybe we are lifting this verse completely out of its context. Maybe this verse is not a blanket assurance that God will answer whatever prayer Christians offer together. While this verse may not offer us the comfort we think it does, it promises us something even deeper.  

So what does this verse mean within its context? Let’s look at the context. Verses 15-17 deal with how we in the church ought to seek out reconciliation with another Christian who has sinned against us. Verse 18 also deals with reconciliation for we saw the other week that the language around binding and losing had to do with the rabbis’ job of interpreting the law which determined what people could and could not do which determined their status within the people of God, whether they were in or out. The other week we saw that Jesus handed this power over to the church and centered it not upon following the law, but on our confession of Jesus as Lord. Here Jesus implies that our actions must equate with our confession. If we confess Jesus as Lord then we must remain in communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ. The binding and loosing here, therefore, has to do with sin and forgiveness, with reconciliation. Our forgiveness of each other, our reconciliation with each other is a reflection of our reconciliation with Christ..

If the context of verse 18 is reconciliation, so too is it for verse 20, “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.”  The Greek word for “gather” is sunago, from which the word synagogue comes from. Taken out of context it is natural to assume that Jesus is talking about the church, that whenever Christians gather together in Jesus’ name, he is there with them. But sunago can also mean to reconcile. Yes, Jesus is talking about the church in verses 15-17, but his main point is not about the nature of the church, but about the nature of reconciliation. What Jesus is saying is that when Christians reconcile, when repentance occurs and grace is shown, when forgiveness and reconciliation happen among Christians, he is there among them.

So the immediate context of verse 19 is reconciliation, but so is the broader context. Peter does not think that Jesus has changed the subject in verses 19 and 20. He is still thinking about sin between members of the fellowship of Christ in verse 21 for he asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” Jesus answers with the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant which, has to do with those who are merciful verses those who are unmerciful. Jesus concludes the whole section by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” In other words, seek forgiveness and forgive one another, reconcile with one another, be gracious to each other, be like God for he has been gracious to you.

So the immediate context of verse 19 is reconciliation, the material following it continues to be about reconciliation, and so too the preceding material. In verses 12-14 Jesus tells the parable of the wandering sheep. This too is about God going out of his way to reconcile “any of these little ones” who may have wandered off. Let me suggest, then, that the whole of chapter 18 centers on the theme of reconciliation. Verses 1-10 make a contrast between the humble and the proud, but the gist of it is in verse 3, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” It is, in other words, the humble rather than the greatest who are reconciled to God.

So then, how are we to understand verse 19, “Truly I tell that if two of you on earth agree about anything about which they have asked, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” Let me suggest understanding it like this: If the Illini win any football games this season, it will be by the brilliant coaching of Lovey Smith. If you ace your exam next week, it will not be by your innate genius, but by your hard work of studying. “If two of you come to an agreement, if you reconcile over any matter, about which you have asked, about which you have prayed to God, it will be done for you by your Father in heaven. Your reconciliation will come about not by your own efforts but through the grace of God working in your hearts, yes, as an answer to your prayers.”[1]

Some may object to this interpretation, they may feel it takes away a great promise from us that God will answer our prayers. I would argue, however, that this interpretation turns the focus off of what our desires are and what we want and how we may be tempted to manipulate God, and turns us to focus on what God wants and what God wants of us. It turns our focus towards the theme of this whole section – reconciliation and the grace of God that enables reconciliation.

We often read verses 15-17 as a template for church discipline. It is often read, however, with the same spirit as Peter’s question in verse 21, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Peter thinks he is being pretty patient and gracious allowing someone to sin against him even up to seven times. But the question is still, “what is the limit?” When can I cut my brother or sister who sins against me off? When someone in the church sins, what all must be do before we expel them? What is the limit of grace?

Listen, however, to Jesus’ progression of grace. Jesus says, “if your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” Our first instinct when we have been wronged is to get others on our side. It is to tell others how someone has wronged us so that we can build up a case against that person. But Jesus says to protect the reputation of the other person. Go to them privately. Try to work it out between just the two of you. Before bringing anyone else in, offer grace.

But if that doesn’t work, then try again. This time try to work it out with as few other people as possible. “Take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

And if that doesn’t work, try again. If you can’t work it out with the help of one or two others, then go to the church. And I would argue that going to the church would mean going to the church leadership, that such a matter should be brought to as few people as possible in the church to help you solve your dispute with your brother or sister. Jesus says if someone sins against you, show them grace, and if that doesn’t work, try again and again.

Only after a third attempt has failed, does Jesus say, “and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Now I would argue that it is at this point that many templates for church discipline go terribly wrong. Typically such a template will say, if you have sought reconciliation through these steps, well, you have done your duty and the person can therefore be removed from the community of believers. They are to be treated as a Gentile or a tax-collector. Treat them as an unrepentant sinner. Exclude them from the assembly of believers.

But how does Jesus treat tax-collectors? Matthew 9:10: “Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples.” In 11:19 Jesus says, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'” In chapter 10 Matthew lists the twelve apostles who include “Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector.” The very author of this gospel was a tax collector. And so Jesus can say to those who counted themselves as among the righteous in 21:31-32, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” 

Jesus, you see, is the shepherd who leaves behind the 99 to find the 1. If someone who sins against you refuses to listen to you, and also to two or three of you, and also to the church, treat them like a tax collector, as Jesus did. Treat them as a friend. Eat and drink with them. Invite them into your home. Accept invitations to their home. Leave behind your 99 righteous friends in the church and seek them out your friend who has wandered off. For if and when the two of your reconcile and come to an agreement over this issue that you have prayed about, it will be God who has been at work in you to bring about your reconciliation.

Once upon a time there were two brothers who went into business together. The business did very well and the brothers were very successful. But the younger brother grew to resent the older. He was tired of being ordered around by the older brother and tired of always living in his shadow.  Now the younger brother was in charge of the books for the business. So he set up a secret account and he began siphoning off some of the profits into the secret account. After a few years he had built up a fortune, but as he did so, the business fell into ruin.

And as the business fell apart, so too did the brothers. The older brother was so angry, he could have killed his younger brother. So he packed all his things and left to live in another country. Away from his brother, his was able to suppress his anger and get on with his life. He started another business and that did fairly well, but after a few years he started to feel that his life was empty. He remembered the church he went to as a child with his parents and his brother and he longed for what he had felt and known about God back then. So he enrolled in a seminary.

At the seminary he learned all kinds of things about God. He learned to read the bible in the Hebrew and in the Greek. He could expound about several different theories of the Trinity. He knew and believed the teachings of the church inside and out, but yet his life still felt empty.

At seminary he had been introduced to the worship of Taize. It gave him a taste of the peace he once felt as a boy in church. And so he went to live in a monastery. At the monastery he worshipped with the brothers eight times a day. He learned to do lectio divina, he practiced silence and solitude and contemplative prayer. He fasted and kept the Sabbath. Finally, he approached the Abbot to tell him that he wanted to join the monastery. The Abbot asked him, “Why do you want to join our order?” “Because I want to know God,” the older brother said. Knowing the older brother’s story, the Abbot said, “Go home. Reconcile with your brother.  If you cannot find God in your brother, you will not find him anywhere.”

Friends, if you want to know God, if you want communion with God, then focus on what God does and what God wants of us - practice grace, seek reconciliation. Seek communion with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Reconcile with anyone with whom you have a disagreement. Treat those who are outside the communion of the church as Jesus treated the tax collectors and sinners, as friends – eat and drink with them, invite them into your home, accept invitations to their home. Practice grace, hospitality, and above all, love. Verse 19 does not promise that God will answer any prayer, but it does promise us that if we are seeking reconciliation with others and praying to God for it, then God will be at work in us and in that situation. For Jesus says, “where two or three reconcile in my name, there I am with them. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.



[1] See Ph.D. dissertation by Paul Daniel Larson, “A New Interpretation of Matthew 18:18-20: Reconciliation and the Repentance Discourse.” (The University of Edinburgh, 2013). https://www.era.lib.ed.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/1842/10621/Larson2014.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

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September 3, 2017 The Cost of Reconciliation
(Matthew 16: 21-28) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] There once was a village of creatures who lived on the bottom of a river.[1] The water flowed swiftly over them so they had to cling to the rocks around them to avoid being dragged off down the river by the current. With one hand they would hold on to the rocks while they stuck the other up into the current hoping they could catch something to eat.

One day one of the creatures thought, “There must be more to life than this. There must be more to life than just hanging on and catching food.” So the little creature said, “I am going to let go. I want to do more than just hang on to the rocks and catch food with my hand. I want to see more of the river.”  “Don’t do it,” the other creatures all pleaded with her. “Don’t do it. The current will sweep you away and bash you into the rocks. You will get hurt. Who knows what will happen?”

But the pleading of the other creatures couldn’t convince her, so she let go. She was quickly swept up and away by the current, and then down and around. She banged into rocks and the bottom of the river. She glanced off of a sunken log and for a while got trapped in a whirlpool. Round and around she spun until she didn’t think she could take anymore. But she began wriggling her body and kicking and moving her arms. She found that she could direct where she wanted to go. She went up out of the whirl pool and into the gentle part of the river. There she learned to turn right and left, up and down and around. Soon she found that she could even swim against the current.

Thrilled and excited she explored the river – its banks and the bottom pools. She swam to the surface and looked out above the water to see giant trees and brilliant flowers on the banks of the river. She dove back under and swam back to her village to tell them all she had seen and to show them that they too could learn to swim, to show them that there was so much more to life than holding on to the rocks.

Jesus once said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Sometimes in life we have to go through difficult times. Sometimes things cause us a lot of sadness and hurt. But after we go through those times, we find that God uses those hard times to help us to grow, to help us to become better people. Just so, if we truly want to follow Jesus, we have to give up our very lives to him. That is hard to do, and it can be painful. But if we trust in God and give up our lives to Jesus, he will give us a new and greater life. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

Last week I asked you to imagine having a friend who had hurt you in some way, and what it would take for you to reconcile with your friend. Now I invite you to imagine that you are that friend. Imagine that you are the one who has hurt your friend. You are the one who has betrayed the friendship. What does it mean for you to apologize to your friend? What does it take emotionally, socially, and spiritually to say to another, “I am sorry. I was wrong. I am guilty.”

Let me suggest that something in you has to die in order for you to be truly contrite and repentant. You have to swallow your pride. You have to admit that you were wrong. And you have to surrender yourself to your friend. You have to place yourself at their mercy. You have to recognize that they have a right to demand something from you.

In a legal sense, when you are at fault in, say a car crash, or if you cut down a tree and damage your neighbor’s fence, you are liable for the damages caused by your action. The other party has a right to some of your property to make up for the loss of their property. But the same is true in an emotional and a spiritual sense when we wrong someone else. When we harm someone, insult them, or disrespect them, they have a right to our humility, to our contrition, to our abasement. And so for reconciliation to happen, when we are in the wrong, we have to give up something, usually several things. We, in a sense, have to die to a part of ourselves.

Last week I argued that Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ was the climax of the whole biblical story of God’s reconciliation with humanity. When Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, he recognized him as the King of God’s people, as God’s representative, and so he, in a sense, pledged his loyalty and obedience to Christ and thus to God. This morning’s text is perhaps another side of the same coin and still part of the climax of this whole biblical story.

“From that time on,” we read in verse 21, “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Jesus went to the cross because the cost of reconciliation is death.

As the Christ, as the King of God’s people, Jesus not only represents God to us, but he represents us to God. The cross of Christ is therefore the means by which our reconciliation with God is put into effect. Jesus dies on our behalf. He represents humanity as we stand before God as those who have offended God, as those who are in the wrong, as those who need to repent.

But, some may ask, why does Jesus have to die? Why can’t God just forgive our sins? I understand that there is a sort of death, a death of our pride, a death of part of our ego, but why must there be a physical death?

Well, when we look at how we are reconciled to God, there are three basic ways to look at this. We in the West often look at reconciliation with God from a judicial aspect. Pauls’ letters often emphasize this judicial aspect of our reconciliation to God through the cross of Christ. This is, in part, because he is writing to churches in the Greco-Roman context, and Greco-Roman society was a law-based, or guilt based culture. From a judicial perspective, as God’s creatures, as God’s servants, we owe God our obedience, we owe him our very lives. Therefore when we disobey him it is, if you will, a capital offense. It is a crime deserving of death. And so in this judicial sense, the cost of reconciliation is death. But Jesus, as our representative, undergoes death for us. He suffers the cost of our disobedience.

A second way to look at our reconciliation with God, however, is from a more Eastern perspective. Eastern cultures are more shame and honor based, rather than guilt and law based. Humans were made in the image of God and appointed as God’s stewards, as bearers of God’s authority within the creation. We were thus given the highest place of honor within the creation. We therefore owe back to God great honor, glory and praise. But when we turn away from him, when we follow our own ways and dishonor him then we bring shame upon ourselves and we must be exiled from the presence of God. Those who dishonor God cannot remain in his presence for they will continue to bring shame upon him.

The gospels reflect this culture more than Paul’s letters for they reflect the culture in which Jesus’ ministry and death actually took place. The Jewish culture, you see, was more an Eastern culture than a Western culture. The emphasis in the passion narratives – Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion – is not so much on the guilt he bears for us, but upon the shame and ostracism he endures for us. He is humiliated and everyone, including God, abandons Jesus. Death is thus the ultimate humiliation and exile which he undergoes for us. It is the cost of reconciliation.

So you can look at the cross from a judicial, legal perspective, and from a shame and honor, let’s say a relational perspective, but you can also look at it from a deeper, ontological perspective. Ontological is just a fancy word for thinking about the very nature of reality, the nature of our being. The judicial aspect and the relational aspect of our reconciliation with God are important and true, but they can still leave us asking, why couldn’t God just forgive? Why is death still the cost of reconciliation?

It is necessary because death is the natural result of separation from God. As Paul says to the Athenians, “In [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Since God is the creator of all things, he is the constant source of all life. If we are removed from the source of life, we die. If we stop breathing, we will die. If we stop drinking water, we will eventually die. If we stop eating food, we will eventually die. Likewise, the more we turn from God, the more we refuse God, the more we move towards death. If we continue to refuse God, we will die. But, just so, the more we live in and for and toward God, the more we participate in true life.  Jesus dies for us because our disobedience and dishonoring of God separate us from God, the source of all life and so they naturally lead to physical and spiritual death.

The other ways of talking about the cross, in terms of law and guilt or in terms of shame and honor, are just how this more fundamental reality of life in God and death outside of God gets played out in human culture and history. Jesus heads to Jerusalem in order to enact a judicial reconciliation on our behalf. Though he is innocent, he is condemned to die. And heads to Jerusalem in order to enact a relational reconciliation on our behalf. Though he has honored God fully, he is subjected to the utmost of humiliations and he is abandoned, exiled by all. But more fundamentally, Jesus goes to Jerusalem to enact an ontological reconciliation. He experiences separation from God, death and hell on our behalf. His death is the cost of our reconciliation with God.

But there is yet another cost to reconciliation. Jesus goes to the cross to pay our cost of death in order to reconcile us to God, but as the Christ, Jesus is not only our representative to God, he is God’s representative to us. Think again of your falling out with your friend, and take again the side of someone who has been sinned against. For reconciliation to happen the one who has sinned has to die in some sense, but so too the one who was sinned against. If you have injured me, I have a claim upon you. I have a right to extract a cost from you. But if I accept your apology, if I extend mercy to you, I give up my right to extract from you the full cost of reconciliation. I, in a sense, die to myself, a give up a right in order to have mercy on you.

Jesus goes to the cross as our representative in order to die on our behalf, but Jesus is also God’s representative to us. More so, Jesus is the Word made flesh. He is the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. He goes to the cross on behalf of the Father and the Spirit and dies for them. God thus accepts Jesus’ death for our death. The death of Jesus on the cross is not just the Father sacrificing his own Son, it is the Triune God giving up the payment we owe him for our disobedience and for the shaming of his name. On the cross Jesus dies on behalf of the Father and the Spirit to bring about their reconciliation with us. The cost of reconciliation, even for God, is death. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

And that leads me to my final point: if the cost of reconciliation is death, what is purchased through death is not just reconciliation, but new life, resurrection life. What is purchased and then given by Christ is eternal life in the presence of God. For Jesus taught his disciples that he must go up to Jerusalem to suffer many things, to be killed and on the third day to be raised to life. And he said, “whoever loses their life for me will find it.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Silence]

Almighty and loving God, we praise you for the gift of your Word. We pray for the grace to lose our lives for the sake of Christ so that we may find ourselves reborn to life everlasting in him. Amen.



[1] This story is a reworking of a story written by Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah (New York: Dell, 1989).

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August 27, 2017 On this Rock
(Matthew 16:13-20) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] This morning I have something to show you. What is this? It’s a rock, of course.  Now what can you tell me about rocks. If you were to describe a rock, how would you describe it? Hard. Heavy. Not easily moved. Not bendable. Hard to break. …

So if I wanted to name this rock, what might be a good name for a rock? .… How about any of the adults? … Well I think a good name for a rock would be Peter, because Peter is the Greek word for Rock.

Do you know the apostle Peter from the Bible? He had another name. Sometimes he is called Simon. What stories do you know about Peter? What kind of a person was Peter? … So Peter did a lot of great things. He was a leader in the early church. He was a missionary who spread the good news of Jesus. But when he was a disciple, he wasn’t always someone to look up to. Once he walked on the water, but he doubted Jesus. He didn’t have faith in Jesus so he began to sink into the water. And on the night when Jesus was arrested, Peter followed from a distance, but when people said that he was one of Jesus’ disciples, he denied it. Not just once, but three times. So Peter wasn’t always as hard and as strong as a rock, was he?

Well this morning we are going to read the story of when Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. Peter stepped forward and said that Jesus was the Christ. Now that was a brave thing to do because you could get into trouble saying something like that. But Peter was not afraid to say that Jesus was the Christ. And then Jesus said, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in Heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, you are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”

Sometimes we think we have to be smart, or a perfect person who never does anything wrong, or a really brave person in order to serve Jesus. But Jesus said he was going to build his church on Peter, on Peter who was sometimes brave, but sometimes scared, sometimes filled with faith, but sometimes filled with doubt. So let me give you all a rock so that you can remember that Jesus can use someone like Peter who was not perfect, someone who was flawed to help build his church. Jesus can therefor use other people who are not perfect. People like you and me. [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

Imagine that you have fallen out with a good friend of yours. They have said some hurtful things about you. Maybe they have soiled your reputation. Maybe they have done so out of a misunderstanding or because they don’t know your whole story, but still there is no excuse for what they have done. You are hurt. You feel betrayed. You are angry. And you are sad. You still value their friendship. You still love them, but you can’t see how the relationship can continue with this rift that they have created.

But then one day your friend comes to you. He has come to apologize, to say that he was wrong, and to ask for your forgiveness. What will it take for you to know that he is indeed sorry?

I suppose there are many ways to indicate that you are sorry for something you have done. You can send someone flowers with a card. You could buy them a small gift as a token of your remorse. But nothing says, “I am sorry” like saying “I am sorry.” There is something about voicing the words, confessing that you were in the wrong, and asking to be forgiven that is weightier and in a sense more real than any gesture you can make. There is something about words that can make something you feel inside a more concrete reality. Saying “I am sorry” makes your repentance unequivocal and public and thus part of our shared reality. There is no better way to say “I am sorry” than to say “I am sorry.”

In the weeks and months ahead we are going to be looking at the concept of reconciliation. Ned asked me to see if I could choose a theme for the fall, so I looked at the lectionary texts and I thought that each week touched upon reconciliation in some way. You will be hearing more from Ned about how we as a church can think and read and discuss and engage with this theme of reconciliation in near future. So this morning we begin with what I believe is a key text on the theme of reconciliation. Jesus gathers his disciples and asks, “But what about you, who do you say that I am?” And Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus says to him, “You are Peter, Petra, Rock, and on this petra, on this rock, on this confession, I will build my church.”

One could argue that this scene is the pivotal scene in the whole biblical story.  If the main narrative of biblical story is that of God seeking after humanity in order to reconcile humanity to him, then our text is the climax of that story. Each of the three gospel writers who include this story, Matthew, Mark and Luke, situate this story to be the pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry. Before this the question has always been looming, “who is Jesus.” After Peter finally answers openly, “You are the Christ,” Jesus turns towards Jerusalem where he will live out what it means for him to be the Christ, that is, he will take up his cross and die.

Now certainly Jesus’ death and resurrection are key to our reconciliation with God, but when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, he proclaim words of reconciliation. Humanity has fallen out with God because we have not recognized God as our King, as the one who deserves our love, our devotion, our obedience, our all. When Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ, which mean the Anointed One, he is recognizing Jesus as the King of God’s people. He recognizes Jesus as the rightful representative of God himself, for the King represented God to the people. For Peter to confess Jesus as King was therefore to confess his allegiance, his loyalty, his obedience to God, and thus to be reconciled to God.

The irony of Peter’s confession is that he doesn’t know all that he is saying. The church later came to understand that Jesus was not only the Messiah and thus able to lay claim to the title “The Son of God,” but that he was also the literal son of God, the word of God made flesh, that Jesus was in fact God himself. Next week we will see that Peter could not fathom what being the Christ actually meant for Jesus, that it meant suffering humiliation and death. But even though Peter did not fully understand his own confession, Jesus says, “I tell you that you are Peter, Petra, and on this rock, this petra, I will build my church.”

This is the pivotal point in the whole biblical story for it is on this confession, that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus is God’s appointed representative and that he thus not only represents but reveals who God is, it is on this confession that humanity is reconciled to God. For when we confess that Jesus is the Christ, we profess to him and to God our loyalty, our love, our devotion, and our obedience. And so it is through this confession, as Jesus says, that he will build his church.

The church, you see, is the gathering of those who have been reconciled to God. Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Our task as the church is to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, that Jesus is the Christ, so that others may come to know and confess Christ and so be reconciled to God.

Now we should note that when we hear these words, this may sound to us as though God is restricting his grace and love and mercy. But the words binding and loosing on earth and heaven refer to the role of the Jewish rabbis in Jesus’ day. The rabbis, as they interpreted the laws of Moses and the traditions of the elders, were said to bind and loose. Through their interpretation of the Jewish laws they declared what people could and could not do and thus they defined who was in and who was out of the people of God. The binding and loosing was a determination of the boundaries of the people of God.

Jesus, however, takes this task away from the rabbis and the culturally and morally exclusive laws of the people of Israel. Now the gates of heaven and into the people of God, the church, are flung wide open for anyone can confess that Jesus is the Christ. Now the gates are open to Gentiles, to those deemed unclean by the law, and even to those who don’t always get their confessions right.

Jesus says that he will build his church on this petra. That is, I believe, both on the confession that Peter makes and on Peter himself, for Peter becomes a main figure and leader in the early church. And that is enormously gracious. Remember who Peter is and what Peter does. He is the bold and brave and courageous disciple who proclaims that he will never abandon Jesus even if he has to die, but yet denies Jesus three times. He is first one to proclaim Jesus the Christ, but then in the next moment Jesus calls him Satan. He is the one we hold up as having such great faith, but Jesus upbraids him as one of little faith. It is on this fallible, sometimes weak, sometimes strong, this doubting, denying, believing, following disciple that Jesus builds his church. And so he continues to build his church on the likes of you and me, those who are at times filled with faith and at times with doubt, at times obedient, at others wandering, those who timidly or bravely confess Jesus as the Christ.

And so the next thing to note about this confession is that it is a gift of grace. Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” Our reconciliation with God comes through the confession that Jesus is the Christ, but those of us who make that confession have no bragging rights over those who have not. Like Peter, we are all flawed confessors. We too are enabled to make the confession the Jesus is the Christ because this has been revealed to us out of the grace and mercy of God.

Now all of this begs the question, what of those who do not confess Jesus as the Christ? The other day I someone came to me and asked me this very question, and it is a question that needs to be asked. If the biblical story does in deed come to a climax in this scene, if the reconciliation between God and humanity turns on this confession that Jesus is the Christ, what about those who never confess Jesus as the Christ? Are they all lost? Do they have no hope of reconciliation?

I think we always ought to remember Shakespeare’s words which Portia says to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, “The quality of mercy is not strained” (IV,1). Simply because, by the grace of God, we have come to know and confess Jesus as the Christ and thus have come to confess our allegiance and obedience and love of God and thus have been reconciled to God, does not mean that the grace of God is limited to this confession. Through this confession God makes our reconciliation with him explicit. Through this confession we come to know God in Jesus Christ and a whole new way of living and a whole new relationship with God opens up to us. But that in no way means that God can’t be merciful with whomever he desires to be merciful.

It doesn’t mean that God can’t or isn’t merciful to those billions of people who grow up in places in which no one had ever even heard of Christ Jesus. It doesn’t mean that God isn’t merciful to the billions of human souls that have died in their mother’s womb before they were even born, or the billions of infants and young children that have died before they were even able to make conscious choices. We must never put such constraints on God’s grace. “The quality of mercy is not strained” for even the confession that we make comes out of and is enabled only by the grace of God.

But what then? Does that mean that the confession that Jesus is the Christ is meaningless? Are all people saved regardless of this confession?

In his book, Falling Upward, Richard Rohr encourages us to live within a creative tension between law and grace, between structure and freedom.[1] He notes that while Jesus reinterpreted and in a sense transcended the Law, Jesus claimed that he did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it and bring it to completion. We have been reading about this in Romans, how we as Christians are not bound to the Law of Moses, but yet we are still called to fulfill the Law for the Law is summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (13:10).

But we Christians love to make new laws, and we do so by turning our doctrines and beliefs into new laws. We read Jesus saying, “On this rock I will build my church,” but then we insist on saying, “Only those who make this confession can be reconciled to God.”

But we are called to live within a creative tension. On the one hand we are called to hold on to the truth that those who confess Jesus as the Christ are reconciled to God. And we are called to proclaim this and teach this and live into this so that our reconciliation with God may be explicit and that we may be shaped and transformed by this confession, that is, so that we may shaped and transformed more and more into the image of Christ Jesus. We are called to hold onto all that is precious and life giving in this confession. And so we are called to build and grow and enable the church of Christ on and through this very confession. It is the rock on which the church is built.

But yet we must never seek to determine the limits of God’s grace and mercy. In the book of Exodus when Moses demands to see God’s glory, God responds, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (33:19). In other words, one aspect of the very name and identity of God is that he is mercy and he is compassion.

Who are we to put constraints on the mercy and grace of God? Rather, let us make his mercy and grace known. Let us make his grace a public reality my making our reconciliation with God explicit through our confession with our lips and through the witness of our lives that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Silence]

Lord God, you sent your one and only Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it, may our lips and our lives reflect our confession that Jesus the Christ, that he is the Lord of Life and the Savior of the world. Amen.



[1] Rohr, Falling Upward, 35.

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August 20, 2017 A Memorial and a Name
(Isaiah 56:1-8; Matthew 15:21-28) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there was a forest of trees. Some of the trees had leaves shaped like this (maple), and some like this (oak), and some like this (etc.). They were all green during the summer, but then when the weather started turning, their leaves changed colors into red, orange and yellow. When winter came, their leaves fell off to the floor, but with spring they all got a new coat of leaves. Well there were other trees in the forest but they had needles instead of leaves this, and like this, and like this. They didn’t change colors and they didn’t lose them all in the winter. Because of this they thought they were much better than the other trees.

And so the two types of trees would argue and argue about who was really a tree, and who was a better tree, and what it meant to be a tree. Some insisted a true tree had to have leaves that change colors. Others insisted that a true tree had needles that stayed green during the winter.

But then one year a new kind of tree started growing in the forest. The trees with needles were glad because this tree had needles like them. But then when fall came along they noticed that the needles on the new tree started to change, and then they all started falling off. This caused a great stir among the forest as the trees began to argue again. Some thought this new tree couldn’t be a real tree because it had needles but they all fell off. Others thought it couldn’t be a true tree because it didn’t have leaves, but yet its needles changed color in the fall. What do you think, do you think this new tree was a real tree? Well, this tree looked like this. Has anyone seen something like this? That’s right, this is from a bald cypress and I cut it off the tree right outside the door of the church. This is from a real tree and it doesn’t quite fit in with the way most trees are like. It has needles instead of leaves, but they change color and fall off in the winter.

Sometimes we humans like to think one group of people is better than others. Maybe we think we are better than others because we have a certain skin color, or speak a certain language, or come from a certain country. But you and I know that God made us all, right? Whatever language or skin color or country we are from, we were all made by God and we are all loved by God. And God wants all people to love him and worship him. In the prophet Isaiah God says, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Sometimes we act like those tree in the forest and we get into silly arguments about who is the best type of human, but Isaiah saw a day when all people will worship God together. Won’t that be a great day? [end].

* * * * * * * * * *

After the White Nationalist, Neo-Nazi march last weekend in Charlottesville, communities across the United States have been moving to remove confederate monuments and statues. This is a good thing, and it is important that our society standup and denounce White Supremacy and all racist doctrines and movements, but we also must be wary that focusing on such things will take our eyes off of other, less obvious forms of racism, segregation and white privilege.

In a recent article in Politico Magazine Adam Goodheart reveals the history of the monuments and statues of confederate war heroes in the South.

[1] These monuments were erected across the southern United States in the mid 20’s when racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan experienced a revival in response to a growing civil rights movement and to new waves if immigrants. But Goodheart notes that the speakers at the dedication of Lee’s statue in Charlottesville were not the Grand Dragons of the KKK, but the presidents of Washington and Lee University and the University of Virginia. They praised the spirit and the ideals of General Lee. Goodheart concludes, “What Confederate monuments offered, by framing their purpose as a familiar lionization of war heroes, was a kind of white supremacism that everyone could rally around.”  In other words, you didn’t have to wear the white robe and hood of the KKK, but yet you could openly support white supremacism by honoring the spirit of General Lee.

The white nationalists and supremacists of today are acting in an environment much like when the confederate statues were erected. In response to the growing tensions over race and immigration, they are attempting to garner support for their views and to make their views a legitimate part of the political landscape. Even if they don’t gain huge numbers, their vocal and public presence may make less obvious forms of racism and white supremacy more tolerable. If we defeat the Nazis, we may think, then we are dealing with racism in our country.

Moreover, we ought to be aware of the theological foundations of the White Supremacist movement. The KKK and other groups were born with and out of the Christian churches in the south and they believe that America, and specifically white America, is God’s chosen nation. Establishing white supremacy, according to them, is a God-given task. We as Christians must therefore not only work against their racism, but also the exclusivist theology that many American Christians accept, the theology that America is in some way chosen and particularly blessed by God for the sake of his Kingdom.

Our texts this morning from Matthew and Isaiah offer us encouragement in opposing both racism and the broader exclusivist theology that undergirds it. Matthew urges us toward intentional acts of inclusion, while Isaiah challenges us to broaden the scope of our inclusion.

When a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter, Jesus replies first through his disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” and then directly to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  These are perhaps some of the cruelest responses Jesus ever utters. We are shocked to hear Jesus call this poor woman and her daughter a dog. Let me suggest, however, that Jesus’ intention is not to insult the woman, but to shock the disciples and challenge their exclusivist theology in which Israel was God’s chosen nation that he would redeem while judging all the Gentile nations.

Jesus’ first response, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” is only partially true. Yes, Jesus spends most of his ministry in Galilee and to the people of Israel, but he frequently travels across the Sea of Galilee into Gentile territory. The Canaanite woman is not the first Gentile Jesus helps. Earlier in Matthew he heals the daughter of a Roman Centurion and he casts out demons from two men in the region of the Gadarenes, a Gentile territory.  We can’t take Jesus’ statement at face value for his actions speak otherwise. Let me suggest that he is bating the disciples. He is playing into their preconceived notions that God will redeem Israel, but judge the Gentile nations. The truth in the statement however, is left unsaid. If Jesus is sent to Israel, he is sent to Israel to fulfill Israel’s calling which is to be a blessing to the nations.

Jesus, you see, is deliberately breaking boundaries. In the previous passage in Matthew he refutes the fundamentals of Israel’s exclusivist theology. This is where Jesus says that someone is not made clean or unclean by what goes into the mouth, but by what comes out of the mouth. The cleanliness laws and holiness codes were the practical, on the ground applications of this exclusivist theology. By following them, righteous Jews demonstrated that they were God’s chosen people and the unclean, the sinners, and the Gentiles were not God’s people But Jesus teaches that cleanliness and uncleanliness are matters of morality, not ethnicity or following the culturally bound Laws of Moses and the traditions of the Elders. After refuting this theology, Jesus immediately supports this by traveling to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

Now, as I have said, Jesus has traveled to Gentile territory before, but that was into territory that was once a part of Israel. The region of the Gadarenes was won for Israel by King David. Tyre and Sidon, however, had always remained in the hands of the Phoenicians. Matthew highlights these details by making sure we know that this woman is not just a Gentile, but a Canaanite. She is a descendant of those pagans who were in the land when Joshua led the people across the Jordan River. And she recognizes this fact by calling Jesus “Son of David.” She recognizes Jesus as the Son of David even though he is outside of David’s territory.

Is it not possible, then, that Jesus’ words of rebuke are said with a heavy dose of sarcasm? The woman, after all, is not discouraged by Jesus’ first response, rather, she presses him directly. And after Jesus’ second response, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” She takes his sarcasm and raises it to another level, “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus therefore responds, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” This, you see, is Jesus’ aim. He has set up this scenario to demonstrate to the disciples that this pagan woman has “great faith.” He thus undercuts their exclusivist theology.

There are two other things to note about this story. The first is where and how Matthew places it in his narrative. Notice that after this Jesus goes back to the Sea of Galilee and miraculously feeds a crowd of 4,000. This mirrors the feeding of the 5,000 in chapter 14. After the feeding of the 5,000 we have the story of Jesus walking on the water, and then Jesus’ teaching of about cleanliness and uncleanliness. We can see that his teaching that refutes the theology of exclusion is at the center of these 5 stories, but also that the story of Jesus walking on the water mirrors our text this morning. And when we compare and contrast these two stories we find Jesus proclaiming that a Canaanite woman has “Great faith,” while Peter, the bold and outspoken leader of the disciples, has “little faith.”

The second thing to note about this story is that this is only the second time Jesus has praised someone’s faith so highly. While Jesus frequently says that his disciples have “little faith,” the only person he praises for having great faith is another Gentile, the Roman Centurion. In fact, Jesus says, “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”

Our text from Matthew therefore calls us not only to stand opposed to White Supremacy, but to be actively engaged in opposing all forms of racism and also all forms of exclusive nationalist theology. We must value, honor, and respect the humanity of each and every person regardless of race or ethnicity. We must teach that God loves all people and does not favor America or any nation over any other. Now this can be done in many ways. We can start by making friends with those of other ethnic groups. We can also seek to place ourselves in environments in which we are not the dominant race so that we can gain a new perspective. We can be politically and socially active opposing public policies that entrench discrimination, segregation and white privilege. We can use whatever power we may have in our community and work places to create and maintain respect and just treatment of all people regardless of race and ethnicity. Certainly we all can’t do all things, but I am sure there is some place in each of our lives where we are called to be and act for racial reconciliation and against segregation, discrimination, white privilege, and nationalistic theology.

While our text from Matthew calls us to an intentional way of being and behaving, our text from Isaiah challenges us to broaden our scope of inclusion. I have already noted that God’s purpose for choosing Israel was always to bless not just Israel, but the nations. This purpose is obviously reflected in Isaiah 56:3, “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’” God has always had his eye upon all the nations even when he choose Israel to be his holy people.

But what about the other group in this passage? Verse 3 continues, “And let not any eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.”  What about the eunuch? A eunuch, by the way, was a man who had been rendered incapable of having children. Let me suggest that Isaiah picks these two groups, foreigners and eunuchs, to address the two main forms of blessing and curse which run through God’s promises to Israel and to all humanity. The promises of land and of children.

These promises begin with God’s blessing upon humanity in Genesis 1. God gives the first humans dominion over the earth and tells them to be fruitful and multiply. Land and children in terms of curse and blessing then form the main sources of tension in the plot throughout Genesis and into the rest of the Old Testament. When Adam and Eve sin, they are cursed with pain during childbirth and difficulty in working the land. When Abraham is called by God, he is promised a land and children beyond counting. Abraham, Sarah and their descendants constantly battle barrenness and exile from the land. The story continues through the rest of the Pentateuch until Israel is a nation of great numbers poised to finally re-enter the Promised Land.

In Isaiah, however, God points us ahead to a day when his blessing of land will not be limited to Israel. Rather foreigners will be brought to the heart of the land. In verse 7 God says, “these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.” That is, he will bring them to Mt. Zion in the heart of Jerusalem and into the Temple, the very place where God dwells with his people in the land. The blessing of Land, as in the beginning, will be for all humanity.

But what of the Eunuchs? God says of them in verse 5, “to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons or daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will never be cut off.” When God promised Abraham the land of Canaan and descendants, he also promised to make a name for him. Abraham’s name lived on in his descendants, but now God promises a name better than sons or daughters to those who cannot have sons or daughters. To say that eunuchs will have a name better than sons or daughters is to revolutionize the parameters of God’s blessings that had here-to-fore been realized in terms of having children. And so people that were left out of God’s blessing are now included.


 

God’s blessings, therefore, are not limited to or prescribed by human sexuality as they were in the Old Testament. In the New Testament we see that Paul broke down the walls of gender by working on equal footing with women and saying that in Christ there is neither male nor female. He also broke down the requirement of having children to have “progeny,” when he opened up service to God to those who remained celibate. Today we now know that gender itself is not so easily defined as simply male and female. Not all people are absolutely either male or female, there are some people whose gender blurs the definitions we have made and the “normal” categories of male and female don’t quite fit. But that does not make them less human or less an object of God’s grace and blessing.

Jesus teaching and actions, and the vision we find in Isaiah, challenge us to intentional actions to break down barriers that exclude people and to broaden our scope of inclusion. God’s blessings are not limited to any one nation or land or people. They are not prescribed by ethnicity or race or any other inherited characteristics. Cleanliness and uncleanliness are only defined by our morality, and all people, by the way, may be made clean by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. For each us only finds ourselves clean and in the presence of Jesus because he came over into our pagan territory to shed his grace upon us. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

Lord God, by the power of your Spirit,

Give us strength to live out the message we have heard today.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen



[1] Adam Goodheart, “Regime Change in Charlottesville,” POLITICO Magazine, August 16, 2017, http://politi.co/2wgOyb7.

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August 13, 2017 The Heart of Faith
(Matthew 14:22-33; Romans 10:1-15) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Have you ever gone swimming with your parents, or maybe your grandparents? I remember swimming with Evan and Elise on vacation. They would be happy for a little while playing in the shallow end of the pool, but then they would want me to take them into the deep end of the pool. So they would stand on the edge of the pool and I would stand in the deep end of the pool, and then they would jump into my arms. Have you ever done that with your mom or your dad?

So I wonder if you would be willing to do that with someone who isn’t your mom or your dad. Maybe your grandparents, an aunt or an uncle? But what about someone else? Would you just jump into the arms of anyone? Maybe you will jump into the arms of someone you and your parents know really, really well, but you aren’t going to jump into the arms of a stranger or someone you just met. Right?

Jumping into the arms of your parents is sort of what faith in God is like. You will jump into your parents’ arms because you trust them. You believe that they will catch you. You believe that you are safe with them. And there are other things you do because you trust your parents. You obey them and listen to them because you believe that they love you and know what is best for you. That is what faith in God is like. When we have faith in God, we trust him. We believe that we are safe with him. And because we trust God and believe we are safe with him, we behave in certain ways. When we trust in God, we obey him because we believe that his ways are the best ways for us. So if you ever wonder about your faith in God, remember jumping into the hands of your parents, and then imagine yourself jumping into the hands of God. [End sermon]

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After Jesus feeds the 5,000 plus all the women and children, he sends his disciples to the other side of the lake, he dismisses the crowd, and he goes off by himself to pray. As the disciples make their way across the lake, they have a bad time of it. The wind picks up and the waves start crashing against the boat, tossing it up and down and all around. Several of them have lived their whole lives on this lake. They are no stranger to the dangers of sailing. They know what they are doing, but yet they are in danger. All night they battle the wind and the waves.

Shortly before dawn Jesus comes to them walking on the water. They may have been afraid for their lives because of the wind and the waves, but now they are terrified. They think Jesus is a ghost.  “Take courage,” Jesus calls out, “It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replies, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

On Friday night a group of white supremacist protesters marched onto the campus of Virginia University in Charlottesville. The city council recently voted to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Meanwhile groups opposing the white supremacists staged their own counter rallies. This led to physical clashes on Friday night and more on Saturday. The violence culminated with a white man from Ohio driving his car through a group of counter-protestors, killing one and injuring 19.

I don’t know about you, but events like this sometimes feel like the wind whipping around me causing the waves of the sea to crash up against me. They cause me to fear for this country. They cause me to fear for the church. The cause me to fear for the world. They make me wonder, “Where is God?”  How can God allow such hatred and violence to persist? And then, of course, I begin thinking of all those places in the world where the violence and misery make the clashes in Charlottesville look like a Sunday picnic.  Aleppo, North Korea, Mosul, and the list could go on.

Perhaps it is the fact that there are so many people who call themselves Christians who stand with and behind the white supremacists that Charlottesville disturbs me so much. Perhaps it is the number of Red, Make America Great Again hats that were worn at the rally and the fact that so many Evangelicals are wearing the same hat that I have begun to wonder, “Where is God?” Many of these people call themselves God’s people, yet they are filled with hate and fear of those whose skin is a different color, or who speak a different language.

It is at times like this that I, like Peter, want God to plainly show himself. “God, if you are there, make yourself known. Do something that will demonstrate that you exist. Then maybe people will come to believe in you. Then maybe people will learn to follow in your ways and love their neighbors as themselves. Maybe then they will see that love and not hate is the answer. Then they will see that Jesus died on the cross to put an end to hate and violence.”

Maybe my doubts stem in part from this feeling that my faith just doesn’t measure up. I doubt because my faith is not strong enough. I doubt because I am weak. If I had faith like Peter’s, I think, if I could trust Jesus enough to walk on water … “Maybe,” I think, “the problem isn’t God. Maybe the problem is my own lack of faith. Maybe the problem is that we all lack faith as strong as Peter’s. Maybe we should all hear these words of Jesus crashing down on us like a Father’s rebuke, “O you of little faith, why do you doubt.”

In that old Gospel Hymn, “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” we sing, “If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus and say, ‘He died for all.’”  While the hymn tries to assure us that we don’t have to be super-apostles like Peter or Paul to be faithful to Christ, I think we often sing to ourselves, “If I only had faith like Peter, if I only worked hard like Paul.” For some reason many of us have a sad taste for guilt. We feel guilty that we are not as robust in our faith as Peter and Paul. We feel guilty that we have doubts about God. And then we feel even more guilty because that just reveals the weakness of our faith. 

But what if Jesus’ words are not an announcement of judgement, but an expression of sorrow and pity? What if Jesus is saying, “Why did you doubt? I am here. Do not be afraid.” And what if we have misread this passage our whole lives?

We look at Peter walking on the water and we think, “What great faith he had.” But that is not what Jesus says to him. Jesus says to Peter, “Why did you doubt?” And when did Peter doubt? Look closely at the text. Yes, he obviously doubts when he looks at the wind and the waves as he is walking on the water. But that is not the first time he doubts. When Jesus says, ““Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid,” Peter doesn’t quite believe him. He says, “Lord, if it is you. … If it is you, if you are who you really say you are, prove it. Tell me to come to you on the water.” We don’t ask those we believe to prove themselves, only those we doubt. Peter’s act of walking on the water was not an act of faith. It was an act of doubt. More so, it is an act of putting Jesus to the test like Gideon’s fleece. And that is good news for us. We do not have to walk on the water like Peter to have faith.

Faith, you see, is at one and the same time one of the easiest things in the world and one of the hardest things in the world for us. It is as easy as falling into the hands of a loving God. But it is also as difficult as falling into the hands of God. Falling itself takes no effort, but allowing ourselves to fall can be terrifying.

In Romans chapter 10, Paul speaks of the nature of our faith in Christ Jesus. All throughout Romans Paul has been tackling the issue of how is it that God’s people are no longer determined by following the Law of Moses, but rather through faith in Jesus Christ. Some seem to be asking, “Is God turning his back on Israel?” “If faith in Christ is the key, what then of the Law? Is that no longer important? And if the Law is no longer important, what then of the people of Israel?”

Paul’s answer throughout Romans has been consistent. He has argued that those who insist that the Law of Moses is necessary or key to our relationship with God have misunderstood the role of the Law and the role of faith in the story of Israel. Remember Paul as in so many of his letters is arguing against those Jewish Christians who insist that in addition to faith in Christ, Gentile Christians must also be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses in order to be right with God. But Paul argues that faith was always the key to Israel’s relationship to God. In 4:3 he notes that Abraham was justified by faith centuries before the Law was given.

In 10:3, Paul speaks about those who have misunderstood the role of the law and faith in Israel’s story. “Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”  God’s people have always been saved, they have always been brought into a right relationship with God, which is to say they have always been made righteous, through the acts of God. That is God’s righteousness. God shows himself to be righteous by being gracious and loving and faithful to his people. To “submit to God’s righteousness,” is to trust in the goodness and grace and mercy and love of God. It is to fall into the arms of God.

In verse 5, then, Paul talks about the true role of the Law of Moses in the story of Israel. “Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: ‘The person who does these things will live by them.’” Paul quotes Leviticus 18 in which God tells the Israelites not to live like the Egyptians, whom they have just been rescued from, and to not live like the Canaanites, to whose land Moses is leading them. Rather, they are to follow God’s Law, to live by God’s ways, and thus distinguish themselves as God’s people, as those who are distinct from people who follow other gods.

So Paul can talk about a kind of righteousness that the Law brings. It is the kind of righteousness that we probably first think of when we think of righteousness. A righteous person is someone who does the right thing, is obedient, who follows the laws. God gave Israel his law as a guide for his people to know how to live as his people. This law showed them how to be good and righteous people. It taught them how to be holy and just and so forth. The law led them into the fullness of life that God was giving them by saving them. The Law was never intended to be the means by which God’s people were to be made right before God. That was all God’s doing. He saved them and brought them into a relationship with him by his grace. Righteousness, a right relationship with God, was always by grace through faith. God gave Israel the Law so that they might demonstrate their righteousness, that they might continue to live out of the righteousness God had given them.

But even so, the Israelites complained that God’s Law was too difficult for them. So in Deuteronomy Moses says, “No, it’s not too difficult for you. You don’t have to go up to heaven to get it. You don’t have to cross the sea to get it.” “No,” he says, “the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. … For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws.”  The word Moses speaks of is love. Obedience to God is not difficult if you love God. Obedience flows out of love. If you recognize the grace God has shown you, if you, as Paul says, know the righteousness of God, that he has been faithful and gracious and loving to you, then you will submit to that righteousness and love God in return. And if you love God, then you will want to please him and obey him.

Paul thus plays off this passage in Deuteronomy in our text from Romans to say the same things about faith. “The righteousness that is by faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?” (that is to bring Christ up from the dead).”  I don’t know about you, but I always found this passage confusing, but it makes sense if you recognize that Paul is playing off the passage from Deuteronomy.

Our righteousness comes through the acts of God in Christ Jesus. We are made right with God because on the cross Christ died to the sin that alienated us from God and through his resurrection he overcame the powers of sin and death that separated us from God. We are made righteous by the acts of God, but it is our faith that demonstrates that righteousness. And faith is not difficult, for our faith is in Christ. We don’t have to perform some great feat like climbing up to heaven to find Christ. We don’t have to journey to the depths to bring Christ up from the dead. We don’t have to walk on water.

If we have faith in him, if we trust in him, then, as Paul says “the word is in your mouth and in your heart.”  If we confess with our mouth that “Jesus is Lord,” we are making a faith commitment to Jesus. We are saying that he is the one we will follow and obey and trust, not any other. We will not put our trust in any other Lord, be it the President of the United States or the CEO of Microsoft. And if we believe that God was able to overcome the powers of sin and death by raising Jesus from the dead then Christ is, in a sense, in us. He is not far. He is in our hearts and on our lips.

Faith is not something we must grab after or obtain by heroic feats. It is the easiest thing for it is trusting in what God has done. It is easiest for through it we trust that Christ has done all that is necessary for the salvation of the world. There is nothing more or less that we can do. It takes no effort on our part, for Christ has shouldered the cross for us and for the world.

But yet faith also seems like one of the most difficult thing to have. It seems difficult for to truly trust in Christ is to bear witness to him by denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him. God gave Israel the Law of Moses so that they might demonstrate their righteousness in God. Christ came, as Paul says in verse 4, to be the end of the law, that is, in order to fulfill the law. And, as Paul says in 13:10, “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” To have faith in Christ, then, is to live out of the same love he had for the world. It is to love one's enemies, to bless those who curse you, to turn the other cheek, which is an act of nonviolent resistance, and to seek justice for the widow, the orphan, and the alien.

My friends, if you feel battered and beaten by the winds of hatred and the waves of violence blowing across this land, listen to Jesus, “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid.”  And listen to Paul, Christ is not far, “the word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” Fall into the arms of God. Confess Jesus as Lord. Have faith that God raised him from the dead. And then allow Christ who is in you to live out of you so that you may love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, that you may love your neighbor as yourself, and even so that you may love your enemies. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence – A prayer for peace by Brother Rogers of Taizé:

Lord Christ, at times we are like strangers on this earth, taken aback by all the violence, the harsh oppositions. Like a gentle breeze, you breathe upon us the Spirit of peace. Transfigure the deserts of our doubts, and so prepare us to be bearers of reconciliation wherever you place us, until the day when a hope of peace dawns in our world. Amen.

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July 30, 2017 Ubervictorious
(Romans 8:28-39) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do your parents love you? How do you know that they love you? They care for you, providing you with food and clothing, a house to live in, etc. They tell you they love you. So let’s say you were to fall down and hurt you knee. What would your parents do? They would hold you. They would bandage it up. But they would also feel sorry for you. One of the surest ways that we can tell that our parents love us is that they feel sorry for us when we are hurt or bad things happen to us. You know what. As a parent, I can tell you that when something bad happens to Evan or Elise, sometimes I feel so bad for them that I wish that I could take their place. I wish was the one who was hurt instead of them.

So how do you think we can tell that God loves us? He cares for us. Provides everything we need to live for us. But most of all, we can tell that God loves us because he came to us in Jesus in order to experience the same bad things that happen to us. More than that, he came to us and died on the cross for us.

I wonder if any of you know a song about how God loves us. Maybe we can sing it together. Jesus Loves Me (#709) [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

You are standing in the funeral home. Friends and relatives from all over have come to pay their respects. You are deeply sad and maybe a bit confused and angry. You don’t understand why she had to die. Or maybe you have just received news that you have cancer.  Or maybe you have just opened a letter letting you know that the job you so much desired has been offered to someone else. IN the midst of your sorrow and pain, another Christian comes up to you and says, “You know, ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:25).

At this point in time, you are not sure that you do know this. You certainly don’t feel it. Just trying to think about how something good will come of this just makes you angry. What you do know is that the person means well. They do not realize how incentive they are being or how trite they sound. So you bite your tongue, smile, and say, “Thanks.”

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:25). I imagine many of us have taken great comfort in this verse. When we as Christians go through a difficult time, we might turn to this verse for assurance. By this verse we may be assured that no matter how bad things are or how bad things might get, God has our back. God is able to turn whatever evil we face, or whatever suffering we go through, to good.

I also imagine that just as many of us have been offended by someone else quoting this verse to us when we are going through a period of suffering. Too often Christians quickly dismiss the suffering and pain of others by trying to offer consolation with some theological truth. If someone is suffering, it is best to first sit with them, listen to them, and pray with them in their suffering. If we too quickly try to console someone by saying that God will somehow turn their suffering into good, it will probably come out sounding very trite and dismissive of their experience. It may be true, but sometimes we are not able to see such truth in the midst of our suffering, let alone be comforted by it. So it is one thing to draw comfort from this verse yourself, but we might want to be careful in how easily we offer it to someone else for their comfort.

There is, however, another reason we ought to be careful in how we use this verse. We often pull this verse out of its context and interpret it in ways that don’t really fit the context at all. We should ask ourselves, Is Paul really talking about suffering in general? Is it right for us to use this verse as a source of comfort for any sort of suffering we may experience?

If you look in the church bibles you will notice that there is a footnote that offers two other translations. It is possible to translate this verse, “all things work together for good to those who love God.” This second option is a bit troubling because it sounds rather pagan. Fate, it seems, is working in all things for those who love God. “All things” just sort of conspire together for the good of those who love God. Is that what Paul believes? Well, in verse 29 God is the subject. God is the one who predestines and calls and justifies and glorifies. As in the first translation, a better translation of verse 28 will therefore have God as the subject.

The third option then is this: “We know that in all things God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good.” I prefer this translation because God is the subject and the verb is “works together.” The first translation just says that God works, but the Greek word is sunergo, from which we get synergy. It means not just to work, but to work together.  And finally this third option fits better with the context of the passage. “And we know that in all things God works together with those who love him  to bring about what is good, those who have been called according to his purpose.” God works together with those who are called to work towards his purpose.

Let’s put this in the larger context of the chapter. Paul begins by talking about what we call our “salvation” in the first third of the chapter. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). But Paul immediately moves from what we call salvation,” to what we call “sanctification.” In Christ we are joined to the Spirit of Christ. We begin to leave behind the sinful nature and to have our minds set on what the Spirit desires (8:5). Last week we saw that Paul then talks about the purpose of our salvation and sanctification. In Christ we are heirs of God and so take up our original calling as stewards of the creation. “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” when it will be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glory and freedom of the children of God.”

The context is that we are working with God for his purposes. Paul sums this all up nicely in verses 29 and 30: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” We are heirs with Christ, image bearers of God who represent God’s authority in and over the creation. “And those he predestined, he also called;” We have a task, and obligation to fulfill, to work with and for God’s purposes. “and those he called, he also justified;” There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.  “And those he justified, he also glorified.” Like Jesus, our co-heir who now reigns in heaven, we too are bound for glory.

But the way to glory is not very glorious. Paul says in verse 17 that we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, “if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Just as Jesus’ path to glory was only through the suffering of the cross, so too we can only participate in his glory if we participate in his suffering. Paul writes our passage this morning not to comfort us in whatever form of suffering we may encounter. He is not talking about generic suffering. He comforts us as we share in the suffering of Christ Jesus. He comforts us by saying that “we know that in all things God works together for the good with [us], those who love him and are called according to his purpose.”

But what does it mean to share in Christ’s suffering? Well, let’s think about the ways in which Christ suffered. The first and most obvious way Christ suffered is the cross. Jesus came and proclaimed the Kingdom of God and he demonstrated it’s presence by healing the sick and casting out demons. This angered the religious elites and the politicians because it challenged their view of God’s kingdom and also their authority. So they crucified him. We participate in Christ’s suffering when we proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God in word and deed and suffer because of it. The good news of God’s Kingdom turns the ways of the world, the ways of power and positon and prestige on its head. This will inevitably put those who proclaim the good news of the Kingdom in conflict with religious, political, and economic authorities and will result in suffering. That is one way we participate in Christ’s suffering.

Second Christ also suffered by identifying with the poor and powerless, with the outcasts and “sinners” of this world. When we work for justice for the poor, when we stand in solidarity with immigrants, or with Black Lives Matter, when we befriend the outcasts of today’s society, when we suffer with those who are suffering, we participate in the suffering of Christ because that is how and why he suffered.

Jesus identified himself particularly with those who were shunned by society, but on a more basic level he simply identified with all humanity. He took on our flesh with all the weakness and vulnerability that entailed. He therefore suffered in all the everyday ways in which we suffer. He cried at funerals. He suffered when people close to him became sick. How often do you read that Jesus looks upon someone who has come to him for help and has compassion for them. The Greek term most often used means that he felt for them in his gut, in his stomach.

And so Jesus suffered in all the ways you and I suffer in this broken world, but with one important caveat. He suffered while knowing the love of God deep, deep down in his gut. You see, Jesus was able to suffer in all these ways because he knew what Paul is trying to tell us. “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  Jesus knew that the very foundation of his being was in God. He knew that the very foundation of God is love. He knew that he could face whatever life and even whatever death brought to him because the God upon whom and in whom all things exist could overcome all things even death itself. He knew that God could work in all things for good, turning all suffering and evil to his ultimate, good and beautiful purposes. And so Jesus worked with God in this by becoming human and suffering with us while trusting in the goodness and the love of God.

You see, it is this trust and faith that enabled Jesus to become human and experience all the suffering we experience in the first place. It is this trust and faith that enabled Jesus to look upon the sinners and tax collectors and declare before the religious authorities that yes, even these were precious children of God. It was this faith and this trust that enabled Jesus to turn away from the worldly path of power and prestige and to take up the cross to demonstrate that the love of God is the most powerful force in the world. It is this trust and faith in the love of God that enabled Jesus to suffer as a human, with the outcasts, and on the cross for the sins of the entire world.

We therefore suffer with Christ, we participate in his suffering when we receive this same love of God and thus are able to have the same faith and trust in God as Christ, for then we suffer in the same way as Christ. We suffer not as those who have no hope. We suffer not as those going down to defeat, but, as Paul says in verse 37, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  The Greek word Paul uses here is upernike.  Nike, like the shoe brand, Nike, means victory. From uper, we get the German word uber, and the English words over and hyper. It can mean over and above, greater than and more than. In all these things we are ubervictorious. We are more than victorious. Knowing the love of God in Christ Jesus, who suffered with us and died for us, but was raised from the dead, knowing that love, nothing can overcome us. We are ubervictorious. We are more than victorious because nothing as Paul says can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither present nor future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, [nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In our gospel lessons this week and the previous weeks we have read of how the Kingdom of God comes not by some splashy show of power. The Kingdom of God does not come with a shock and awe show of force. It comes like a man sowing seed. The kingdom comes like a woman adding yeast to the dough. It is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a giant bush. I believe that the way Christians suffer, the way we suffer with those who are oppressed, the way in which we bear up under suffering when proclaiming the good news, and the way in which we suffer the ordinary pains of life is much like the seeds of Jesus’ parable. It is quiet and unassuming. It bears witness to the very power of life, the love of God, and so it grows and provides space for life. The way we suffer points to the hope that we have in the Kingdom of God. The way we suffer re-presents the truly shocking and awesome power of God and his Kingdom, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It demonstrates God’s power to bring life out of death. Friends, we can take comfort when we suffer and as we suffer with Christ in this: in all things God works together in and through us for good, that is, for the coming of his Kingdom. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, help us to truly know you and the love of God that you came to instill in our hearts so that we may participate in your suffering and so also participate in your eternal glory. In your name we pray. Amen

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July 23, 2017 The Pains of Childbirth
There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] This morning I have something very precious to show you. This is a very precious book. It is a Bible and it is written in Dutch. Actually it is just the New Testament and some Psalms, and it also has some hymns in it as well. Now this book is precious to me first of all because it is very old. It was printed in 1779. That makes it almost as old as the United States, about 240 years old. And second, it is precious to me because it belonged to a girl named Lena Duitman. Lena was born in 1852, so my guess is that this was owned by her mother, and maybe her grandmother.

Now Lena Duitman was my grandfather’s grandmother. That makes her my great-great-grandmother. So this Bible is precious to me because when I look at it, I am reminded that the faith I have in God and in Jesus was something that was handed down from generation to generation for many generations in my family. It reminds me of how all my grandparents and their grandparents, and their grandparents loved the same God I do. It reminds me that God was faithful and is still being faithful to them because he is faithful to me.

This book is precious to me because it reminds me of my greatest inheritance. An inheritance is usually money or land or a house that your parents, or maybe your grandparents leave to you when they die. It would be something if my parents or grandparents had been really rich and that I could look forward to an inheritance of lots of money, or maybe a mansion someday. But they are not really, really rich. And even if they were, the greatest thing, the most precious thing they can leave to me is their faith in God. That is worth more than all the riches they ever owned.

My guess is that your parents would agree with me. If they could give you anything in the world, I bet they would choose their faith in God. That is the most precious inheritance that your parents can pass on to you. Maybe you can ask your parents if you have something at home like this Bible that can help you remember that. Or if you don’t, maybe you can together choose something, like a special Bible that you all read from, to help you remember your most precious inheritance. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

In our text from Romans, Paul talks about our inheritance.  In the Children’s sermon I spoke about faith as an inheritance. That may have ruffled some theological feathers because we Christians like to argue about the nature of faith but we don’t often speak of faith as being something we inherit. It probably sounded strange for me to say that parents can give their faith to their children. But I would like to talk about faith as inheritance because it can help us understand the nature of inheritance.

When we talk about faith, some Christians emphasize that faith is a gift. Paul clearly says it several times in his letters and Jesus says no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born again from above through the Holy Spirit. Other Christians, however, will emphasize the fact that faith is something that we must be active in. We must believe. We must trust. It is our faith.

And this is why seeing faith as inheritance is helpful. An inheritance is a gift that is passed down from one generation to the next that entails an obligation. If a child inherits an estate from her parents, it is a gift they bestow on her that entails that she take up the responsibility of running the estate. The gift entails a stewardship. A faithful reception of the gift entails a faithful use and preservation of the gift.

Faith is an inheritance because it is a gift that entails an obligation. It is given to us, engendered in us, as a gift of grace by the Holy Spirit, but we must receive it. We must own it. We must nurture it. The gift of faith entails a stewardship of that faith.

But faith is also an inheritance because it is passed on from parents to children. This should not shock us or make us think that Pastor Tim has forgotten about grace or that it is a gift from God. God made humanity a social community. We are born into families and clans, and we inherit not just property from our family, but our way of looking at the world, both good and bad habits, and our culture. It is not surprising then that faith is something that is passed on. God gives us the gift of faith not only through the Spirit, but also through the ways in which he himself created the world. And part of our obligation, part of our stewardship of that gift is to pass it on to our children. And part of our obligation of that gift is to receive it from our parents.

Now Paul talks about another inheritance. Last week we talked about how through Christ we are saved by being freed from the realm of the flesh, or the sinful nature, and brought into the realm of the Spirit. Now some Christians have understood Paul’s language as supporting a certain Platonism, a dualism that sets the spiritual over against what is material, as if the material was lesser than the spiritual, or even that the material is evil and the spiritual is good. Paul, however, immediately turns to speak of our inheritance and this should put to rest any sense of such dualism.

But first, let me clarify. When Paul uses the term “flesh”, he occasionally means just our physical bodies or our physical existence. But he most often means our existence corrupted by sin. The NIV thus correctly translates and interprets the term “flesh” here as “the sinful nature.” In verse 12 Paul says since we have been saved, that is brought into the realm of the Spirit by being united with Christ, “we have an obligation - but it is not to the flesh, the sinful nature, to live according to it.” He leaves it unsaid, but the implication is that our obligation is to live by the Spirit. Since we have been saved by the Spirit from the realm of the sinful nature, our obligation is to stop living in the realm of the sinful nature and to start living in the realm of the Spirit. Do you hear the overtones of an inheritance? Salvation is a gift that entails an obligation.

So what then does it mean to live in the realm of the Spirit? Does it mean to leave the realm of the physical behind and live more into the realm of the spiritual? Should we stop thinking about the mundane things of this world and start thinking about our spiritual existence in some future heaven? Absolutely not, for Paul continues in verse 14, “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”  He continues to relate how we were slaves to sin, but now we have been adopted as sons. The difference between a slave and a son is that the slave has no claim upon the master’s estate, but a son inherits the estate. Vs. 17: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

So we are heirs, but what is it that we inherit? Verse 18, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed … the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Our inheritance is the creation. To live into the realm of the Spirit is to live into our obligation as those created in the image of God. To live into our salvation is to be what God created us to be in the beginning, faithful stewards of the creation. We are saved by the grace and mercy of God in order to fulfill our obligation to be faithful stewards of the creation, that part of our inheritance that is passed down from one generation to the next. 

If you know the story of Israel, you can see that Paul is retelling the story of Israel as it is now fulfilled for all humanity in Jesus Christ. Israel was enslaved to Egypt, but God freed Israel. He saved them and, adopted her as his chosen people, and called them his son. He then brought them to the land of Canaan and gave it to them as an inheritance – a gift that was passed down from generation to generation that entailed an obligation. And that obligation was to live by God’s law to demonstrate the ways of peace and justice so that the nations might come to know God.

In Romans 4:13 Paul hints that this story of Israel is but a reflection of the broader story of humanity. He says, “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” You see, God promised Abraham the land of Canaan, but Paul recognizes that this promise was just a seed. That seed of a promise for the tiny land of Canaan contained the promise for the world, which in the Greek is the cosmos. In our passage the inheritance becomes the whole creation.

Thus in 4:16 Paul sees that the promise made to Israel was a seed that contained God’s promise to all humanity. “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only those who are of the law [that is Jews] but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham [that is Gentiles who receive the promise through faith]. The point is that Israel was always meant to be the precursor for all humanity. All humanity may receive the gift of salvation through faith, and that salvation is not liberation from this physical realm, but it is a liberation to live into our inheritance, to live in the creation in a new way in and through the mind of the Spirit rather than the mind of the flesh.

I began this sermon talking about faith as inheritance. Now we can see that salvation is, in a sense, an inheritance. Salvation is not, as some would have it, mere fire insurance, a ticket to heaven in the afterlife, salvation from an eternity in hell. Salvation is not an escape from physical existence into a heavenly spiritual realm. With our salvation we receive something passed down from generation to generation. For Israel that was the land. For us it is the created world. Salvation therefore entails an obligation. Through our salvation we are restored to our original purpose – to be stewards of this creation, to rule over it, to tend it and care for it so that future generations can have a fruitful life.

Salvation is an inheritance because it is also a gift from God. While the land of Israel was passed down from generation to generation, Israel understood that the land itself was also a gift from God. But the gift of salvation includes not only the physical gift of the creation, but the spiritual gift of a restored relationship with God. It thus includes a spiritual reality.

The spiritual gift is that God did in Christ what humanity failed to do. Christ remained faithful to God yet he died to sin on the cross and was raised to new life. And so in Christ we are redeemed from the spiritual bondage of sin and brought into the spiritual freedom of righteousness, the freedom that comes with living in a right relationship with God, the freedom that comes with living in tune with the way God created us and the world. In Christ then, we are being transformed and thus enabled to fulfill our calling as stewards of creation because in Christ we are living more and more into righteousness and justice and peace. At least that is the hope and the vision. Thus our destiny in not only to care for the creation but to become agents of its liberation. Paul says “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. … [for] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

So we can talk about salvation as an inheritance for it is a gift of God that entails an obligation for that which is passed on from one generation to the next. What then is the nature of that obligation? How are we to fulfill our obligation? It is to live in righteousness, by the ways of God’s mercy, justice and love. But let me suggest that suffering plays a key role in the nature of our obligation for suffering is an inherent part of any inheritance. If you receive an inheritance it is probably a bitter sweet reception. If you receive an inheritance it usually means that someone has died. An inheritance entails suffering.

And so we should not be surprised to find that when Paul talks of our inheritance, it is laced with suffering. “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. … We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (17-18, 22-23).

Now it is dangerous for a pastor to talk about suffering, for everyone’s experiences suffering differently. My pain is not your pain, and your pain is not mine. I cannot hope to understand your suffering. And anything I say about suffering may come off as trite or unsympathetic. And I risk being understood as saying that God has inflicted suffering on you, or that God has caused your suffering. But I do not mean to say that. But Paul says we will only share in the glory of Christ if we also share in his suffering.

What I think the biblical story teaches us about suffering is, first of all, that suffering is inevitable. Death and suffering are written all over the pages of the creation. There would be no life on this planet if plants and animals didn’t die. Most plants and animals produce many more offspring than those that actually make it to maturity. And even among humans there are far more miscarriages than we ever hear about. The biblical story faces suffering head on. There is never any covering up or papering over suffering. The biblical story deals with suffering as part of our existence.

Suffering is inevitable, it is part of life at least in this age, and so, second, what the biblical story teaches us is that faith is a trust in God that believes in the goodness of God and in the goodness of creation even in and through suffering and death. Faith is a trust that there is a reality of goodness and life that is more fundamental than the reality of suffering and death.  The biblical story teaches us that suffering, evil, and death are all second order realities. They could not exist without a more basic reality. Suffering and evil and death are parasitic on the good creation. They are a corruption of a more fundamental reality.  And that fundamental reality flows out of what we call God.

The third thing the Biblical story teaches us is that God uses suffering to bring about our transformation. Faith enables us to see our suffering as the pains of childbirth, as suffering that will lead to new life in God. The God we believe in is the God of resurrection who brings life out of death and joy and peace out of suffering and pain.

And the fourth thing that the biblical story teaches us about suffering is that God is present with us in our suffering. We can participate in the sufferings of Christ because he first left he place in the heavenly realms, took on our flesh, and lived, suffered, and died with us. Christ is Immanuel, God with us. And so Paul ends this section of his letter saying in verse 26, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

And so we fulfill our obligation to live as stewards of this creation not only by living into the righteousness, justice, mercy, and love of God, but also by enduring and experiencing the suffering of this world in a way that exhibits our faith in God. We share in the suffering of Christ as we endure suffering exhibiting a faith in the deeper reality of the goodness, love, power, and grace of God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

 

Eternal God, Author of our life and End of our pilgrimage:

Guide us by your Word and Spirit

amid all our pain and suffering,

that we may not be overcome by despair,

nor stumble in the darkness;

but may live in joy and hope live as your faithful disciples,

and do all things for your glory;

through the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.

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June 25, 2017 Proclaiming Christ, Bearing our Cross
(Matthew 10:24-39) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] I remember when my kids were a bit younger than some of you and maybe about the same as others of you, they said this one phrase a lot. “I can do it myself,” they would say. We would ask, “Do you need help getting dressed?”  “No. I can do it myself.” “Can I help you tie your shoes?” “No. I can do it myself.” “Here let me cut your meat up.” “No. I can do it myself.”

It feels good to learn how to do things yourself. And that feeling never goes away even as you get older. The other day our washing machine broke and I was just going to call a plumber to come and fix it, but Roxann told me to take a look at it first. So I looked up a couple of videos online about fixing broken washing machines and then I took our apart and found the broken piece. I bought a new piece and then put it all back together. It felt pretty good to learn how to do something new and to do it myself.

But there are still some things I bet that you like your parents to do for you. I liked that my mom cooked every day and always made dinner for us. I liked it that my dad was good at fixing things and if we ever needed something fixed, I liked that he would fix it for us. When your parents do things like that for you, it makes you feel loved and cared for, right?

Jesus once said, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39) When it comes to God, we are all still like little children. No matter how old we are, whether we are 5 or 10 or 20 or 80, we will always be like children to God. Like little children, we like to go through life saying, “I can do it myself.” We want to take control of our lives. But Jesus tells us that if we insist on making all our own decisions, saying, “I can do it myself” about our lives, then we will never truly live. We will lose our lives. But if we trust God with our lives, if we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake, if we remain like little children before God, then we will find our lives. [End]

I imagine these instructions of Jesus to his disciples are some of the most difficult for many. There is something in here to upturn the pat religious mindsets of everyone. Those who find in Christianity a religion that has love and peace and harmony at its core will be jarred by these words: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Those who place a high value on traditional values won’t like what follows: “For I have come to turn: ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” (34-36).

Jesus doesn’t seem to care much about family values or to hold the nuclear family in such an exulted position as many Christians do. There also seems to be something that he cares more about even than peace. What Jesus says is rather unsettling. In fact, Jesus is speaking about something that, if we are honest, disturbs each of us to the core.

Last week we looked at the beginning of this passage. We talked about how we often find evangelism offensive and how we are not comfortable doing evangelism because we know that others find it offensive. But Jesus looks out over the crowd of people who have come to hear him preach. They have come to have him touch them and heal them. They have come to have him cast out the demons that torment them. He looks out over the crowds who have come to him and he has compassion on them for he sees them as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

And so what does he do? He summons twelve of his disciples and designates them as apostles, that is, as those who are sent for that is want “apostle” means. He then instructs them to go to the lost sheep of Israel proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and showing that the kingdom is coming by healing the sick and casting out demons. Evangelism does not need to be offensive because of any arrogance or superiority on our part. Our primary reason for engaging in evangelism is simply that we, like the apostles, have been sent by Jesus to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. Our motivation for evangelism comes not from our own sense of superiority, or because we are privileged and others need our charity. Our motivation is the compassion of Jesus. He wants all of his sheep to know him, their shepherd.

But yet there is still something unsettling about evangelism. While I mentioned that what Jesus and the apostles did was culturally appropriate, how they acted as though they were Prophets of Israel, Jesus goes on to say how many will not receive the good news proclaimed by the apostles as good news. Many will be offended by it. “On my account,” he tells them, “you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.”When they arrest you,” he tells them, “do not worry about what to say or how to say it.”Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (18-22).

Notice how an interesting shift occurs throughout the course of Jesus’ instructions. He begins by giving them instructions about proclaiming the good news to others, but then he begins talking about the apostles themselves. He tells them how they will be persecuted, and about how they might be saved. The object of salvation, in a sense, seems to shift from the lost sheep of Israel to the apostles themselves. One wonders if Jesus is talking about those to whom the apostles are sent or about the apostles themselves when Jesus says, “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (38-39).

For us today, what begins as a text that sends us out proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, turns to an invitation to reflect upon our own salvation. We may feel uncomfortable at the beginning as we worry about offending others by heeding Jesus’ call to evangelism. But, if we accept the invitation to reflect on our own salvation, we may become disturbed ourselves by Jesus’ words.

For if we stop to think about these words, we find that they are truly very challenging to us all. They challenge us because Jesus tells us that we have nothing to do with our own salvation. With life in general we like to be independent and autonomous. We live our lives saying, “I can do it myself.” And when it comes to religion, we tend to think of salvation as some sort of self-improvement project. Religion and “salvation” are things that we do or believe in life that help us to become better people, more enlightened people. They enable us to take a step higher the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The Spiritual or Religious person is closer to being the Self-Actualized person than she who is still just concerned with her career, or with family. But Jesus says in order to find our life, our true life, in order to find salvation, we have to lose our life for his sake.

In his book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, 

Our salvation is "external to ourselves."  I find no salvation in my life history, but only in the history of Jesus Christ. Only he who allows himself to be found in Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, his Cross, and his resurrection, is with God and God with him.[1]

Our salvation is “external to ourselves” because our salvation is found only in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

In Romans 6 the apostle Paul writes:

Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.

Salvation is not a self-improvement project. It is a dying project, and it is a resurrection project. Bonhoeffer writes, “The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day.”[2] When it comes to our salvation, when it comes to our life with God, when it comes to our very lives, Jesus matters more than we do ourselves. That is not an easy truth to accept. If we are talking about our own salvation, if we are talking about our own lives, then isn’t it obvious that our lives are what really matter? Aren’t we front and center when it comes to our own salvation? But that is the rub. The answer is no. Our salvation, our true life begins in losing our lives to find them being taken up into the life of Christ. We therefore cannot direct our salvation. We cannot orchestrate it. We cannot determine it. The main role we have is in letting go, in dying to ourselves, in being found in Christ.

At the end of the movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Professor Dumbledore comes to have a talk with Harry. For those of you who don’t know Harry Potter, they have just learned that Lord Voldemort, the most evil and one of the most powerful wizards to have ever lived has just returned. Dumbledore and Harry know that they now face a great danger. Dumbledore says to Harry. “Dark and difficult times lay ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”

The choices we face in life are not always so stark and obvious as between what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. The choices we face in life are more often between what is good and right and true and what is easy. We don’t have to do evil to be complicit with evil. We just have to mind our own business. We don’t have to tell lies to be complicit with falsehood. We just have to remain silent.

When it comes to our own lives and our very salvation, what is easy is to live your life saying, “I can do it myself.” What is true is that Jesus has come to gather all his sheep into his fold. What is easy is to live your life the way everyone else around us is living their life. What is true is that Jesus sends us out to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. What is easy is go on living how we have been trained by our culture. What is true is that proclaiming the good news of the kingdom will be offensive to many. What is easy is to go on living your life with the illusion that you are in control of it. What is true is that “Only [those] who allow [themselves] to be found in Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, his Cross, and his resurrection, [which is to say, in his mission,] [are] with God and God with them.” What Jesus says is not easy, but it is true: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” It is not easy, but it is true and filled with grace, for in this we are found in Christ as his beloved sheep and given new life. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Silence

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive, 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

(St. Francis of Assisi)



[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 54.

[2] Ibid.

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June 18, 2017 Sheep without a Shepherd
(Matthew 9:35-10:8) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there were two travelers who wanted to climb up a mountain. They climbed and climbed until they came to a cliff that rose high above their heads. The first traveler said, “Lucky for us, a strange man gave me a rope at the bottom of the mountain.” He pulled out his rope and threw it up the cliff. It was just long enough. First he and then the second traveler climbed up the cliff.

They continued climbing up and up until they came to a second cliff that rose up and up. The first traveler took out his rope and threw it up the cliff, but it didn’t reach the top. “Lucky for us,” said the second traveler, “I think that same strange man gave me a rope too when I started out on this journey.” She took out her rope and threw it up. It just reached the top and the two of them climbed up the cliff.

They continued climbing up and up the mountain until they came to a third cliff. They looked up the cliff and it kept going up and up and up and up. “Our ropes are not long enough,” said the one. “Even if we each had two and tied them all together. What are we going to do?” Just then a rope came tumbling down the cliff, the end landing just at their feet. They looked up to see that same strange man who gave them their ropes at the bottom of the mountain. They both climbed up and found that they were at the top of the mountain. And there sat the strange man, waiting for them.

Sometimes we as Christians think that we are somehow better than other people because we know Jesus.  We might think we are more special than other people because have the Bible that tells us about God. We might think God loves us more than other because we think we obey God better than others. We might sort of think we are like that second traveler. We have a longer rope. We think we can climb higher than others. Maybe we think we are closer to God than others because of all we know about God and all the ways we obey God.

But while we might know lots about God and about Jesus and about how he wants us to behave and what he wants us to believe because of the Bible, we are all like both of those travelers standing at the bottom of the high cliff. None of us can reach God, no one can climb up to God unless God reaches down to us. The only way we can reach God is by the rope of his love and his mercy that he throws down to us. [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

Every week I spend a couple of hours at the Champaign library working on my sermon. Lately when I have come out, there have been two ladies standing a little ways away from the entrance with a stand filled with pamphlets, newsletters and fliers. I avoid them like the plague. I know that they are probably engaging in some form of evangelism. They would love to talk with me about how I can be saved by believing what they believe. Maybe I could just take and read one of their pamphlets, then I might know the truth about God or Jesus or Heaven or whatever.

Perhaps you have had a similar experience. Maybe someone like this has knocked at your door. Maybe they have stopped you on the street. Maybe an acquaintance has invited you to a church picnic or a special event they are hosting. You cringe because you know that this is an attempt to evangelize you. They have some special knowledge about God. They know that they are saved, but they assume you are not. And so we find this behavior rather offensive, don’t we. Who are they to assume to know the state of my relationship with God?

Last week we heard Jesus’ command to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” This week Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim the message, “The kingdom of God is near.” Evangelism, which literally means the proclamation of the good news, is obviously a key task or calling of a disciple of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ main activity was evangelism. Over and over again the gospel writers summarize Jesus’ ministry in this way, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” Most of the gospels, if you exclude the stories about Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection, simply expand on these summaries. Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God and he demonstrates its presence by healing the sick, casting out demons, and eating with tax collectors and sinners. Evangelism, the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of God, basically sums up the whole ministry of Jesus. And if evangelism was primary to Jesus’ mission, is it not primary to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus?

But we do not want to be that guy who offends others through evangelism, do we? We are uneasy with the posture we think we have to take to be an evangelist. Who are we to presume to know the state of another person’s soul, or the nature of their relationship with God?  Who are we to assume that we have a corner on God or that we possess something that we can share with those who don’t have it?

So what are we to do? Let’s take a closer look at our text to see if we can resolve the tension we feel between Jesus’ call to evangelism and our discomfort. Let’s begin with the mode of evangelism, the how to of it. If we think of our discomfort with evangelism, I think most of our discomfort comes from the way in which we see people doing evangelism. We are uncomfortable with the thought of talking to strangers about our faith. We are too introverted for such activity. We view it as arrogant and so on.

It is true that Jesus sends out his disciples to go from town to town proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, but he doesn’t send them out into Champaign-Urbana in the 21st century. In verse 5 he says, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus sends them into a particular context in which this form of evangelism was not offensive in itself. It was part of the culture

Jesus sends his disciples to the people of Israel. Many were hoping for the Kingdom of God. They longed for the coming of the Messiah. Many therefore heard the proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom as good news indeed. The disciples and Jesus himself took on the role of the itinerant prophet – bringing a message from God, the good news that the Kingdom was near. If there was any offense in the disciple’s proclamation, it was an in-house offense. Jesus and his disciples offended people just as Isaiah and Amos and Jeremiah offended people years before. They offended people because their message was not only that the Kingdom of God was coming, but also that the Kingdom of God was for sinners and that all people, even the “righteous” needed to repent. No one likes to be told they need to repent, after all.

Now there may be times when we are called to be prophetic in our culture. Standing up against racism and working for social justice to name just two. When we do so we are announcing the coming Kingdom of God in our actions and also challenging people to repent. But we don’t need to stand on the street corner calling people to repent. Rather we contextualize our message to our culture. Moreover, there were many other ways Jesus engaged in evangelism. He cared for the sick. He reached out to the outcasts of society. He ate meals with sinners and tax collectors.

Authentic evangelism begins with the way we live our lives. It begins by living out the truths of the gospel and by living into the various callings we have, which we looked at last week, as image bearers of God who are being transformed into image bearers of Christ Jesus. Live in such a way that if and when you ever do talk to someone about Jesus or the good news, you can say, “Jesus is why I do this,” or “The kingdom of God is why I am so passionate about that,” or “Let me tell you about what God has done in my life”

And that leads us to a second thing to consider: none of us has arrived yet. We are all still becoming what God is making us to be. We can all sing, “I am not there yet. I’m still flawed and broken. Sometimes I can taste the sweetness of the kingdom, but I can’t yet hold it fast.” Jesus needs to hold us fast.

In the beginning of chapter 9 Jesus finds Matthew, one of the 12, sitting at a tax collector’s booth. If there ever was an Israelite who was ‘not there yet,’ it was a tax collector. Working for the Romans. Dealing with Gentiles all day long. Taking from the people of Israel, probably skimming some of the top, and turning over their money to the pagans. Could you find anyone else who had so betrayed the nation of Israel? But Jesus calls to Matthew and says, “Follow me.” Worse, Jesus then goes with Matthew to Matthew’s house and has dinner with him. There they are joined by more tax collectors and even other sinners. When the Pharisees begin to grumble about this, Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (12-13).

Jesus gathers 12 of his disciples to him and he designates f them as apostles. Jesus appoints 12 apostles in order that they might represent Israel, the 12 tribes of Israel. These 12, then, are the first 12 “found sheep of Israel.” They were just recently “lost sheep of Israel until they were “found” by the Good Shepherd. They are not far removed from the place in which the rest of Israel finds itself. They are “not there yet.” Read the gospels and you will see that they are still flawed and broken, yet Jesus sends them out to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. They are sent, therefore, not based upon anything they have done to earn such a position. They are sent not because they are so much better or more righteous than the “lost sheep of Israel.” They are sent merely because Jesus designates them to be sent. But why does Jesus designate them as apostles?

That brings us to a third point to consider: our motivation for evangelism. At the beginning of our text in verse 36 Matthew writes, “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’”

Jesus calls us to the task of evangelism not in order to express our love, or our compassion, or our pity on others. Jesus calls us to the task of evangelism not because he has given us something that he now wants us to share with others. Jesus calls us to the task of evangelism not because we are more spiritual, or more righteous, or more knowledgeable about God than others. Jesus calls us to the task of evangelism because he has compassion for his lost sheep. Jesus calls us to the task of evangelism because he is the Great Shepherd of all people, and he considers those who do not know him as harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus calls us to the task of evangelism because out of his compassion he wants all his sheep to know him. For whatever reason Jesus has decided to enact his compassion through people like you and me. Jesus has gathered us into his fold because of his compassion, how can we not be willing accomplices in his compassion for others?

Authentic evangelism must arise out of the context of our own lives and fit into the context of our culture. Rather than making us feel awkward, it should be organic to us. It should flow out of who we are becoming in Jesus Christ. Perhaps some of us are called to be prophets, calling our society to live more justly, thus calling them to repent. But if you are called to be a prophet, as a follower of Christ, you are also called to be an evangelist, to be willing and able to talk about how Jesus and the Kingdom of God are the basis for your hopes and your actions.

Others of us may not be called to be such prophets, but I think we are all called to be evangelists. And I think we can all fulfill that calling by seeing ourselves as fellow travelers with other Christians, with people from other faiths, with people of no faith. As we travel along we try to live our lives in such a way that they point to Jesus and the Kingdom of God. At places along the way there may be times when we can learn something about God from others. At places along the way we may have the opportunity to share with others why we live the way we do and why we believe in Jesus and hope for the Kingdom of God. This is not arrogance. We are not asked by Jesus to make any judgements about others. In fact he forbids it. We are simply called to be honest about who we are, about our hope in and love for God, about what God has done in our lives, and who God calls us to be. And it must may be that our story, our testimony may lead people to the rope of Jesus’ compassion. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Silent prayer)

Gracious God, grant us the transforming presence of your Holy Spirit so that our lives may be, in word and deed, a living testimony of the compassion of Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep. Amen.

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June 11, 2017 In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
(Matthew 28:16-20) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] How are you Rissa, and Samuel, and Eleora, and Alan, and Ruby, and Mayuri, and Seiji, and Kenji? Now I know your names, but do you know my name. Tim, that’s right, but that is my nickname. Does anyone know my full name? It’s Timothy, but I ask everyone to call me Tim. I only use Timothy on special occasions. Now there is another nickname for Timothy, do you know what that is? Timmy.  Now I don’t mind being called Timothy, I prefer to be called Tim, but I really don’t like being called Timmy. I don’t like Timmy because I always thought it was a name for a little boy and I always wanted to be treated as older than I was. The only person I ever let call me Timmy was the old lady who lived down the street from us whose lawn I mowed.

You see a name is a very personal thing. A name belongs to you in a way that nothing belongs to you. You sort of feel like your name is a part of who you are. That is why it is always very hurtful to make fun of someone’s name. When you make fun of someone’s name, you are making fun of the person themselves, aren’t you. But when you honor someone’s name, you honor that person as well.

So we all have names, but what is God’s name? God the Son has a name, Jesus. But what about God the Father and God the Holy Spirit? One time God told Moses that his name was Yahweh, but Yahweh in Hebrew means “I am who I am.” God’s answer was sort of like saying, “I don’t have a name like you have a name, but you can call me ‘I am who I am.’”

I am a bit puzzled because Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he gathered his disciples around him and he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-19). So if there really isn’t a name for God the Trinity, what does it mean to baptize in his name?

Well, a person’s name, like I said has to do with their honor. So when we are baptized into the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are marked out by God’s honor. We are called to live in such a way that we bring honor to God’s name, in such a way that we honor God. So when you come into church every week, and you see this bowl that holds the water I use to baptize people, remember that we who are baptized into the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are called to honor God with our whole lives. [End].

* * * * * * * * * *

Jesus came to his disciples and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.”

If all authority in heaven and earth were given to you, what would you do? Would you command that all nuclear bombs be dismantled? Would you mandate that every nation in the world had to abide by the Paris Agreement regarding climate change? Would you revamp the drug laws that fill our prisons with non-violent offenders? Would you enact a national health-care system that provided basic health care for all? Would you put an end to the international slave trade? If all authority in heaven and earth were given to you, what would you do?  If that is what you would do, why isn’t that what Jesus did? Or maybe, Jesus did do something like all those things, but his implementation went like this: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.”

We often think of this passage in rather narrow terms. The “Great Commission,” as it is called, has been taken as our primary mandate as Christians. It has come to define the main goal of the Christian life as being to convert others to the Christian faith. Is that what this text is about? Undoubtedly Jesus desires us to make disciples of other people. All authority was given to him, and his plan to address all the needs of the world, all the evils of the world, is to commission his church to go and make disciples of all nations. That is what he does when he is given all authority in heaven and earth. He enacts no legislation. He makes no international treaties. He doesn’t ban swords or spears or chariots or trebuchets.  He commissions his followers to go and make disciples.

That begs the questions, however, of what it means to be a disciple. We have often understood a disciple to be someone who believes in Jesus and then obeys this command from Jesus. A disciple is someone who believes in Jesus and gets others to believe in Jesus. Jesus’ command to baptize new disciples has been seen to be just the ritual marker or a capstone to this process. Baptism simply symbolizes the new convert’s choice to believe in Jesus.

But Jesus commands us to baptize disciples into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and to teach them to obey everything he has commanded. That is a much more expansive calling for a disciple. Jesus commanded many more things than simply making more disciples. Moreover, the sense of Jesus’ command is not a call for us to parse out each and every command he ever gave the disciples and follow only those. The sense is that a disciple of Jesus is one who walks in the way of Jesus, who lives her life in the manner Jesus did. It is to take up the same ethos as Jesus. It is not merely to follow a bunch of commands that could be listed and totaled and thus followed to a tee. It is to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Moreover, to be baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is an even broader mandate yet. As I said in the children’s sermon, to be baptized into God’s name is to have your life committed to the honor of God. And that means we are to be committed to all that God is and all that God is doing. In short, to be baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is to be enlisted into the purposes of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is to be joined to the mission of God. That, then, is the broader definition of a disciple. A disciple is someone who has been joined to the mission of God.

Baptized in the name of God the Father, we have been incorporated into the mission of God the Father. The mission of God the Father begins like this, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1:1, 26)

The Psalmist puts it like this:

When I consider your heavens / the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars, / which you have set in place,

what is humankind that you are mindful of them,

human beings  that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels

and crowned them with glory and honor.

You made them rulers over the works of your hands;

you put everything under their feet:

all flocks and herds, / and the animals of the wild,

the birds in the sky, / and the fish in the sea, / all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord, / how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:3-9, NIV)

In the beginning God set out to make a vibrant, diverse, flourishing creation that reflected his glory. He made the cosmos to proclaim and reflect his might and his wisdom and his hospitality and his love and his grace. God set out to make a creation that would honor his name. At the pinnacle of that creation, he set humankind. He charged humankind with tending and caring for the creation so that the creation would flourish and so that the creation and humankind itself would reflect the glory and honor of his name.

Baptized into the name of the Father, we are called to honor God by tending to the creation, by being “like God.” We participate in the mission of God the Father by learning more about the world and how it works through the sciences. We participate in the mission of God by examining the nature and history of humanity through politics, history, economics, sociology, psychology so that we have a better understanding of humanity itself. We participate in the mission of God through the artistic and creative fields, producing and performing music, designing homes and buildings, melding beauty, form and function in the things we humans make. We participate in the mission of God when we bring healing to other human beings, to the political and social systems, or to our environment. And we participate in the mission of God when we produce things for the good of society. In all these ways we participate in the mission of God when we support the flourishing of God’s creation.

But of course, God’s creation and humanity in particular have strayed from God’s initial intentions. And so we come to the mission of God the Son. Baptized into the name of God the Son, we are joined to the mission of God the Son which begins like this, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1-3). And it continues, “For God so loved the cosmos that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). The mission of God the Son is to redeem humanity and God’s broken world.

Now I have defined the mission of God the Father in terms of the Creation, and the mission of God the Son in terms of Salvation, but each person of the Trinity works in each aspect of the mission of God. All things were made through and in and for the Word of God. Eternal life, as Jesus defines it in John 17:2, is to know God [the Father] and Jesus Christ. The salvation we receive through Jesus Christ is therefore not just the salvation of our spirits. It is the salvation of our whole beings, our souls, our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. In his book Simply Jesus, N.T. Wright has said, “Jesus rescues human beings in order that through them he may rule his world in the new way he always intended.”[1] The purpose of our salvation, the mission of Jesus, God the Son, was not simply to make us believe in Jesus or have a personal relationship with Jesus, but to put humanity back on track with God’s original plan for the creation.

Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch theologian, pastor, and philosopher from the late 19th century, saw this over one hundred years ago. Moreover, he emphasized that God’s plan for creation and God’s plan in Jesus was always to bring about a new, a renewed creation. He wrote,

Shall we consider the work of the Christ on Golgotha as finished, or shall we with Scripture and with the whole church of the first centuries continue to expect our Lord from heaven in order to bring the present situation to an end and lead it to a new heaven and a new earth? To put it succinctly, shall we imagine that the Redeemer of our soul is enough for us, or shall we continue to confess a Christ of God as the Savior of both soul and body and as re-creator, not only of the things that are invisible but also of the things that are visible and apparent to our eyes? … Does the fact that he overcame the world mean that one day he will cast the world back into nothingness in order to be left with only the souls of the elect, or does it mean that the world will also be his prize, the trophy of his glory?[2]

You see, once God created the world in order that his name would be honored and glorified through the creation, God committed himself to that very creation. And so God has also committed himself to human beings whom he made in his image to be the stewards of his creation. God’s name, God’s honor depends on God redeeming and renewing both humanity and the whole creation. The mission of Jesus, God the Son, is therefore to bring humanity back into the full mission of God the Father, to renew our spirits, minds, bodies and souls so that we can be the images of God he created us to be.

To participate in the mission of the Son is therefore to live with faith in and obedience to Jesus Christ. It is, as Jesus says, to die to ourselves, to take up our cross and to follow him. To participate in the mission of Christ is to live in this world according to the new way we are being remade in the image of Christ. It is to have the same mind as Christ, as Paul says in Philippians 2. It is to clothe ourselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. .. and over all these virtues to put on love which binds them all together in perfect unity,” which Paul says in Colossians 3. As we live in the way of Christ we participate in the mission of Christ for then we bear witness to Christ in all we say and do. We thus demonstrate that the salvation Christ has come to bring includes not just individual people, but all of life, and that it anticipates the full renewal, the recreation of all things which we call the Kingdom of God.

And that brings us to the mission of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit, as we heard last week, who works in our hearts to transform our whole being, our soul, body, mind, and spirit. But it is also the Holy Spirit who is at work in the hearts of those who may not yet have faith in Jesus Christ. For, as Jesus says, “no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again from above,” and “no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit”(John 3:3,5).

We participate in the mission of the Holy Spirit, first of all, as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the transformation of our own selves. As Paul says in Philippians 2, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Through worship and prayer, Bible reading and other spiritual disciplines, through our life together as we teach and encourage one another in the church, we position ourselves to receive the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

And second, we participate in the mission of the Holy Spirit as we cooperate with the Spirit as the Spirit works in the hearts of others who do not yet know Christ Jesus. As we live and work in the world as followers of Jesus, we bear witness to the person of Jesus in word and deed to those around us. We become signs of God’s kingdom through our service and ministry. When asked we tell others the reason for our hope and for our faith in Christ.  We tell them the good news about Jesus Christ and his kingdom. And, when appropriate, we invite others to put their faith in Jesus Christ as well. This is how we participate in the mission of the Holy Spirit. This is how we make disciples so that they too may become dedicated to the mission of God and be baptized in the name God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence.

Triune God, may we who have been baptized in your name live by your Spirit so that we may walk in the ways of Christ Jesus our Lord, and so bring glory to our heavenly Father. Amen



[1] N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (HarperOne, 2011), 216.

[2] Quoted in Craig G. Bartholomew, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017), 38.

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June 4, 2017 Streams of Living Water
(John 7:37-39) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Did you know that you are mostly water? Over half of your body weight comes from water. That is why when you get really, really thirsty, water tastes better than anything else. When you are thirsty your body is telling you that it needs more water.

So how much water do you think you have in your body? One gallon? [pulls out a gallon] Two? Three? Well how much do you weigh? 40 pounds: 3 gallons; 50:4 60:4.7; 70:5.5; 80:6.2; 90:7; 100:7.6; 110: 8.4.  Well, I need more water. [pulls out a 3 gallon jug] Now how many gallons of water do you think I have in my body? 12 gallons. I still need more water. [Pulls out a 6 gallon jug] I have all of this water in my body. Water is so important to our bodies. Without water we would shrivel up and dry out.

Once Jesus was teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. And he said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever has faith in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37-38) Now Jesus was speaking about the Holy Spirit.

So just as water is so important for our physical life, the Holy Spirit is so important for our spiritual life. Without the Spirit our souls would shrivel up and dry out. But Jesus says if we come to him he will give us the Spirit to drink. And if we believe in him, the Spirit will be so abundant in us it will flow out like a river or water to others. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

On the last and greatest day of the feast …” It is the last and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Booths. What is the Feast of Tabernacles? Several times over the past years our campus chaplains group has had our monthly meeting at the Chabad Jewish center on during the Feast of Booths, or Sukkot, as they call it. Each year they and other observant Jews, will erect a temporary shelter, a sukkot, outside of their house. They eat their evening meals in the sukkot and the men often spend the night in them. While the focus of the celebration is on hospitality, the practice is to help the people remember God’s hospitality as he watched over and provided for the people of Israel when they lived in tents during their years of desert wandering.

In Jesus’ day, each day during the seven days of the feast, the High priest would take a cup of water from the pool of Siloam, one of the main water sources in Jerusalem. He would walk with a procession of people following him up to the temple where he would pour it out as an offering to God. The priest also poured out a cup of wine as a thank offering for the grape harvest. The feast was therefore a feast of thanksgiving for the provisions of God, first for the people’s time in the desert when he provided them with water from the rock, with manna and with quail, and then, in the land of Israel, for God’s provision of the yearly harvest.

And so we read:

On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever has faith in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

We thirst for many things as human beings. We thirst, obviously, for water. We can last a couple of weeks without food, but after 3 or 4 days without water, most people are in grave danger of dying. But we also thirst for other things because to be human is to need. We thirst for beauty. We thirst for friendship and companionship. We thirst for power and authority. We thirst for all these things because God made us in his image. We are creatures who, like God, love to make things, particularly things of beauty. We like to care for things, to grow things, to nurture things – that, in its essence, is power, the ability to have meaningful control over something else. We thirst for many things and our thirst, our desires, are good things because that is the way God made us. It is no more wrong to thirst for power than for water because God made us creatures who are dependent on water and creatures in whom he invested his own power and authority.

The problem is, of course, because of sin, our thirsts have become distorted. Our thirst for power is not automatically good. It depends on what type of power we desire and over what or whom we desire to have power. It is my moral responsibility to have power over my new born child, but it is also my moral responsibility to relinquish my power, be it ever so incrementally, over my child as he grows and approaches adulthood. (With an emphasis on “incrementally.”) Our thirsts, our desires, have become distorted by sin so that we desire the wrong things, or too much of a thing, or for the wrong reasons.

Another problem, and a more subtle problem, is that we come to believe that we will satisfy our selves by satisfying the thirsts we have. We tend to tie our various thirsts and desires with the core of our selves. Our bodies thirst for water and hunger for food, but if we satisfy our bodies we ourselves may not be satisfied because our bodies are not the core of our selves. Our minds may thirst for things to do and problems to solves and so our minds may be satisfied through our work, our teaching, our research, or whatever we do, but we ourselves may not be satisfied because our minds are not the core of our selves. Our spirits may long for beauty or companionship and they may be satisfied by going to a concert with a good friend, or by making music, but we ourselves may not be satisfied because our spirits are not the core of ourselves.

Jesus addresses the core of our being. He addresses our souls. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever has faith in me … rivers of living water will flow from them.” God made us with all these desires and thirsts, and so they are basically good. But at the core of our being, God made us to be in relationship with him. Our souls long for, they thirst for communion with God. In the Gospel of John Jesus speaks over and over again about his communion with the Father and our communion with God through Jesus.

I am in the Father and the Father is in me (14:11),” Jesus says. “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (20).” “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (23). “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit (15:5).” And Jesus prays for all who will believe in him, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you sent me (17:21).

This, you see, is the “eternal life,” that Jesus talks about again and again in the gospel as well. “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Eternal life is to have a relational knowledge of God and Jesus Christ. To know God is not to know things about God, but to know God and Jesus as persons. It is a knowledge that comes from and flows out of our communion with God that is deep down in our very souls. And it is for this that Jesus came to us for John says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling with us.”  Or more literally, “The Word became flesh and set up his tabernacle with us” (1:14).

While the Feast of Tabernacles was about God’s provision for the people - water in the desert and grapes at the harvest – it reminded the people of Israel that God’s greatest provision for them was God himself. In the desert God himself came and dwelt with his people in the Tabernacle, and in Jerusalem God came and dwelt in the Temple. In Jesus, the Word became flesh and set up his tabernacle with us. And now, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God in Jesus Christ comes to make his dwelling in his church, in each of us.

And so when we drink from this well that is Jesus, our souls are sated by our communion with God. Living water then begins to flow from out of us. Not only are our minds satisfied by the work that we do, but our souls become satisfied because the work we do flows out of our communion with God. You see, when our work flows out of our communion with God, our work demonstrates faithfulness to God’s ways. In our work we promote justice. In our work we seek peace. In our work we exercise loving dominion over the creation as God intended. And when we eat and drink out of our communion with God, not only are our bodies satisfied by food and drink, but our souls are satisfied because we eat in gratefulness for God’s provision. We affirm the goodness of God’s creation and thus the goodness and love of the Creator. And when our friendships flow out of our communion with God, our spirits and our souls are satisfied by those friendships because we are able to love others as God has loved us, and we are able to receive love from others because we know what grace is. When we come to Christ to satisfy the thirst of our souls, our whole being – our body, spirit and mind – our whole being is satisfied.

Then, when our souls are sated by our communion with God, living water flows out of us. Life, as it were, flows out of us because our souls are united to God by faith. “Whoever has faith in me,” Jesus says, “rivers of living water will flow from within them.” Faith, as I have said many times before, is not mere belief in God, or belief about God. Even the demons believe many things about God. But second, faith is a deep trust in God. It is a trust that this God will provide water in the desert and grapes at harvest time. It is a trust that even more importantly, God will remain in communion with you beyond this life. It is a trust that this communion with God is eternal life.

It is this sense of trust in God, it is this knowledge of our communion with God that enables Peter, as we heard last week, to encourage us to be joyful even in the midst of hardship and persecution. It is this trust in God and communion with God that enables Paul to be content in every situation. It is this trust that knows that nothing can separate us from the love of God which thus shapes all that we do, and thus leads to the third aspect of faith.

Faith is belief in God, trust in God, and third, faith is faithfulness to God. Faith is obedience to God. Because we trust in God and live out of our communion with God, we are enabled to walk in his ways no matter what the consequences. We can return scorn with compassion. We can love our enemies. We can remain a source of calm in the midst of a storm because our very souls are satisfied. Life, then, flows out of those who have faith in God for we walk in the ways of God which bring life and flourishing to others.

When we drink from the well that is Christ Jesus, the Spirit satisfies our souls and the life, the love, the grace of God begin to flow out of us. This living water, then begins to shape all of who we are and all of what we do. You see, we are not only satisfied by the Spirit of Christ, we are caught up, like the disciples at Pentecost, into the mission of God. The Spirit flowing through us and out of us joins us to the mission of God to bring water, living water, the Breath of Life, the good news of Jesus Christ – there are many metaphors we could use – to bring the living water of Christ Jesus to a world dying of thirst for God. Come to Jesus and drink of his living water, so that the Spirit of God may become a river of living water flowing out of you. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

Almighty God, create in us a deep thirst for your Word that we may know that we are in Christ and Christ is in you, and so that we might become vessels of your grace. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

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May 28, 2017 It is written
(Luke 24:44-53; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] When I was young, I took piano lessons. Does anyone here take piano lessons? So what do you have to do to learn how to play the piano? You have to practice. And sometimes when you start out, things don’t sound so good, right? Like when your teacher gives you a new piece of music and it is a bit harder than what you have done before. Maybe when you first play it you make a lot of mistakes, maybe the rhythm is a bit difficult and you have trouble counting. But then you practice and you practice, and eventually you are able to play the piece without any mistakes.

When I got a bit older, I decided I didn’t want to play the piano anymore, but that I wanted to play the guitar. The only problem was that I just wanted to play the guitar. I didn’t want to practice. I wanted to have fun playing, but I didn’t want to do the hard work of practicing. Do you think I ever learned how to play the guitar well? No, I gave it up after about 2 years. Sometimes in life we like to skip the hard stuff and go right to the fun stuff. But that usually doesn’t work out so well.

This morning is Ascension Sunday. Can anyone tell me what the Ascension is? It was when Jesus ascended into heaven. So today we celebrate that Jesus entered into his glory. He ascended into heaven in order to sit on his throne. But before Jesus ascended into heaven, he explained to his disciples what was written about him in the bible. “this is what is written,” he said, “The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.”

When Jesus came to us, he didn’t skip the hard stuff. He took up his cross and he died for us. It was only after he suffered and died that God raised him from the dead and that he Jesus ascended into heaven. So when we praise God that Jesus is on his throne in heaven, let us always remember that Jesus loved us so much that he didn’t skip the hard stuff. He went to the cross first. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ…” (1 Peter 4:12). Peter has called us to some uncomfortable places over the past few weeks. He has called us to live in hope, ever cognizant of the pain and suffering and evil in this world, but yet trusting that God will overcome all evil and bring in his kingdom. He has called us to be free slaves, free with regard to the powers of this world, yet slaves of God. He has called us to be aliens, sojourners and foreigners in this world, citizens of the Kingdom of God who live by the beat of a different drum.

Peter calls his congregation to these places in the world because they are being persecuted for their faith. He calls them to these liminal, in between spaces, in order to encourage them to endure their trial and remain faithful to Christ and filled with hope for his coming kingdom. All of these point to and prepare his congregation to hear what he has to say in our text: Don’t be surprised by your suffering, but rejoice in it for through your suffering you are participating in the suffering of Christ. Peter calls his congregation and us to the most difficult of liminal spaces – to be joyful in the midst of suffering.

This is certainly not how we usually look at or feel about suffering. In fact, it is quite odd. Should this change how we respond to those who are suffering? Should we say to the person who has just lost their job, “take joy in your suffering?”  Should we take the child who has skinned her knee, give her a hug, and say, “Isn’t that great. You are in pain!”  I imagine we all strive pretty hard to avoid suffering. Suffering in itself is never a cause for joy, but lamentation. But how do we make sense of Peter’s encouragement that his congregation rejoice because they are suffering?

This morning is Ascension Sunday and I think our text from Luke sheds some light on this dilemma. Jesus has passed through his suffering. He has endured the cruelty, the pain and the shame of the cross. He has died, but he has risen. He gathers his disciples in Bethany. He blesses them and is taken up into heaven. He ascends to take his place on the throne of God. As Paul says in Philippians, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, that every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (2:9-11).

On this day we celebrate Jesus’ rise to glory. We praise God that the King of kings has finally taken his rightful place. We are encouraged and our hope is strengthened for we know that Christ is working to extend his reign over all things. He is working to extend his peace and his justice, to eliminate oppression and evil and suffering. His ascension gives us hope that his Kingdom is coming.

But right before he ascends into heaven, Jesus spends one last time teaching his disciples. And what does he teach them? He says to them, “‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:44-47).

On the day Jesus ascends to his glory, he has to explain to his disciples why it is that he had to suffer. The cross is a difficult thing for us to understand. Why did Jesus have to die? Well, it wasn’t obvious to the disciples either. What is rather annoying, however, is that Jesus says “This is what is written,” but then what he says is not written in the scriptures. There is no place where you will find a quote that says, “The Messiah will suffer,” and so on.

We will often immediately go to Paul or even to Peter in order to explain why Jesus had to suffer. We will explain that Jesus took upon himself the sins of humanity and paid the price of our guilt. Peter says we are saved by “the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1:19). And also, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed”  (2:24). But the scriptures for Jesus and the disciples obviously didn’t include the New Testament. Where then is it written in the Old Testament that the Messiah must suffer?

Biblical scholars will point to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. This makes sense since they are among the most quoted Old Testament texts in the New Testament. In the book of Acts Phillip encounters an Ethiopian reading one of these passages: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Luke writes, “then Phillip began with that very passage of Scripture and told [the eunuch] the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35).

Jesus, however, says in verse 44, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” The Jews divided the Old testament into 3 parts: the Torah, the Law of Moses, which is the first 5 books of the bible; the Prophets which covers what we call the prophets but included the historical books like Joshua and Kings; and “the Psalms” which was short hand for all the books of wisdom – the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and so on. So Jesus isn’t just quoting from Isaiah. He is looking at the whole biblical story.

Now we don’t know how Jesus did this, or what he said. But Jesus invites us to interpret the whole of the Old Testament through the lens of his death and resurrection. So what happens if we read the scriptures through this lens of Jesus death and resurrection, through both his suffering and glory? By doing so, I hope that we can then make sense of Peter’s encouragement to his congregation that they can, and thus even we can, rejoice in the midst of suffering.

The beginning of the biblical story starts with glory but quickly devolves into pain and suffering. God creates the world so that all his creatures might flourish and he crowns his creation with humanity. He creates human beings in his image, invests them with his glory, and commissions them to be his vice regents within the world. But they quickly turn from God’s ways and seek to create their own. By eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the first humans attempt to determine for themselves what is good and what is evil. Not satisfied with the glory given them by God, they seek to become gods themselves.

Of course this turns Gods intended blessing for them into a curse. Instead of a life of flourishing and blessing, the humans earn for themselves a life of pain and suffering. Their labor, both the woman’s labor in child birth and the man’s in producing food, will be fraught with pain and toil. And they earn for themselves the suffering and pain of contentious relationships. Their actions curse the relationships between humanity and God, between humanity and the rest of creation, and the relationships within humanity. Instead of life and flourishing, humans earn for themselves curse and death.

When I am talking with new Christians or those who are exploring Christianity, they often stop me at this point in the story and ask, “Well why did God create humanity in such a way that they might disobey him and lead to the mess that came from their disobedience?” One answer to that is that God wanted to create other beings who would truly love him, and for true love, a being must have a free will. But if a being has free will, there is the chance or perhaps the likelihood that that being will eventually choose to not love and obey God.

At a deeper level, however, is what this all says about the nature of God himself. By creating human beings with a free will and investing them with power and authority, in giving them a share in his own power, God made himself vulnerable. God opened himself up, as it were, to suffering. When we think of the attributes of God we think of his omnipotence, that he is all powerful, his omniscience, that he is all knowing, and so one. But do we ever stop to think that perhaps at the core of God’s being is his vulnerability, or at least his choice to be vulnerable. Love, as the apostle John teaches us, is the primary attribute of God, and love leads to vulnerability. So it is out of his love that God invests humanity with free will and with power and authority and so the loving God becomes a vulnerable God, a God who is open to suffering.

Maybe you are a bit skeptical at this point. Is that what Genesis 1 teaches, you may ask. But think of the rest of the story. This same pattern gets repeated over and over again throughout the Old Testament. God continues to choose human beings, to invest them with responsibility, to call them to participate in his plan to redeem the creation, and human beings continue to fail him. God calls Abraham. Abraham doubts and has a child with Hagar. God calls Jacob, and Jacob responds by making a deal with God saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the Lord will be my God” (Genesis 28:20-22).

Yes, the story is a mixed bag. Abraham and Jacob prove to be faithful in the end. But even the greatest of God’s servants, Moses and David, were flawed servants and failed God on several occasions. Overall, however, the story of God and Israel, from the Golden Calf at Saini to the child sacrifices under King Manasseh, the story of Israel is one of Israel becoming more and more faithless and disobedient. It is the story of God investing power and authority in humanity, of God making himself vulnerable by choosing to incorporate humanity into his mission, and of humanity failing God. In a sense, the story of Israel and God is not the story of the judgmental and vindictive God you so often here about, but the story of a patient, long-suffering, and ultimately loving and merciful God. Time after time, God calls Israel back to him. Time after time, God forgives and then opens himself up again, he makes himself vulnerable, by sticking with Israel as his chosen instrument to bring his blessing to the world.

If vulnerability, if being open to suffering, is an important characteristic of God, then it stands to reason that vulnerability, being open to suffering, is an important characteristic for human beings, those made in the image of God. In a recent interview Richard Rhor, a Franciscan monk and spiritual guru, said, “I think the truly human is always experienced in vulnerability, in mutuality, in reciprocity.  When human beings try to deny their own vulnerability, even from themselves, when they cannot admit weakness, neediness, hurt, pain, suffering, sadness, they become very unhuman and not very attractive.” [1]

If vulnerability, the openness to suffering, is an important aspect of God and his mission, it is an important aspect of what it means to be human. It is no surprise then that the one who became both God and human, the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, made himself vulnerable. It is no surprise when Jesus says, “This is what is written, ‘The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.’”

Jesus’ death on the cross is not just a legal transaction between God and the devil. It is not just an ordeal Jesus goes through to satisfy the justice of God. The cross is the climax of God’s love story with humanity and his creation. The cross is God becoming his most vulnerable, his most open to suffering, for the sake of his beloved humanity. But the cross is not only about the love of God for humanity, it is also the story of the love of humanity for God, for Jesus was both God and human. As a human Jesus becomes his most vulnerable on the cross because of his love and devotion to God. On the cross, Jesus as God suffers for us. On the cross, Jesus as human loves God and remains obedient to him for us.

Later in the interview Rohr speaks about the vulnerability of God, and says, “Vulnerability transforms you. You can’t be in the presence of a truly vulnerable, honestly vulnerable person and not be affected.” When we see someone who is suffering, someone who is truly vulnerable we are presented with a choice. We can either respond to that person with love and compassion, or we have to turn away from that person with a hardness of heart. The biblical story is the story of God coming to us in love and vulnerability. When we look at Jesus on the cross, we are confronted with a choice. We can either look upon his suffering with compassion, love, and gratitude, or turn from it in disgust and hardness of heart. The suffering of Jesus is an invitation to the soul of our humanity to be truly human, to respond out of the image of God in us, and so to respond with love, compassion, and gratitude.

The cross of Jesus is thus the most poignant instance of an invitation God has been issuing to humanity since he created us in his image. God has always been opening himself up to suffering in order to draw us into him, into his ways, and into his plan for the whole creation. Our suffering, therefore, can become a reason for joy. Not all suffering, mind you. Suffering is never good in and of itself. But if we suffer because of our confession of Christ, if we suffer for the gospel, then we can rejoice for we are participating in the suffering of Christ and the love of God for the world. If we suffer on behalf of and for the sake of others, then we can rejoice, for then we are participating in the suffering of Christ and the love of God for the world. And if we suffer for whatever reason, but refuse to give up faith in the basic goodness of this world and hope for God’s kingdom, if our suffering doesn’t lead to cynicism, anger and despair, if through our suffering we can bear witness to Christ and his Kingdom, then we can rejoice in our suffering for we participating in the suffering of Christ and the love of God for the world. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silent prayer.

Gracious God, may your Spirit work in us through your word spoken to us today that we may be made more and more into the image of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.



[1] Krista Tippet, “Richard Rohr — Living in Deep Time,” On Being, April 13, 2017, https://onbeing.org/programs/richard-rohr-living-in-deep-time/.

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May 21, 2017 Alternative Facts
(1 Peter 3:8-18) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Have any of you ever visited another country? Have any of you ever lived in another country? Some of you have parents and grandparents from different countries. So I bet you know that people do things differently in different countries, don’t they? For instance, people do different things when they greet one another in different countries. What are you supposed to do in the United States when you greet someone? Shake their hand. But what do you do when you greet someone in Japan, or Taiwan, or Korea? You bow to them. Do people do anything different in other countries? How about in Germany or India?

This morning we have a special guest, Leanne Geisterfer. She is a missionary in Honduras which is in Latin America. Now some people in Latin American will give each other a small hug and a kiss on the cheek when they greet each other. That’s really different than a bow or a handshake. And what do you think would happen if I went to Japan and gave people a kiss on the cheek instead of bowing to them?

Following Jesus is sort of like being from one country but living in another country. The Apostle Peter tells the people in his church to “set apart Christ as Lord in your hearts.” That means we are to obey Jesus and follow his ways rather than the ways of the world around us. Peter says, “Live at peace with one another; be sympathetic, love each other as brothers and sisters, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay bad behavior with bad behavior or insult with insult, but with blessing.” Some people only think about themselves. Some people don’t care about others. Some people try to get even when someone is mean to them. But Jesus loved everyone and was even kind to those who were mean to him.

So if we follow Jesus, sometimes we may feel like we don’t fit in. We might feel like we are from one country, but living in another and that we don’t do things the same way. And sometimes others might make fun of us for that or insult us. But Peter says, “It is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil because Christ died to sins to bring us to God.” [End]

* * * * * * * *

 Over the past few weeks we have been looking at how Peter calls us to live in liminal spaces, in in-between spaces. He calls us to live as people of hope, as people who love this world, but long for a better world. He calls us to live as free slaves, as those who are free with respect to the powers of this world, but slaves with respect to God. Over and over he calls us to live as foreigners, sojourners and aliens. We are God’s chosen nation, a holy priesthood, a people belonging to God and so in some ways we don’t quite fit here in this world.

In short, Peter recognizes that we live in liminal spaces because we must live within whatever culture we are in, but we are to be governed by a different culture, the culture of the Kingdom of God. In this morning’s text Peter gives a summary of the ethical life we as citizens of God’s Kingdom are called to live in a fallen world.

Before we look at that summary, however, we should look at the ethics of the Roman culture in which Peter’s audience lived. From 2:11 up to our text Peter uses a familiar ethical framework of his day to address how Christians ought to live in the Roman world. If you are familiar with Paul’s letters, he uses the same framework which modern biblical scholars call a household code. In Roman and Greek literature of the day, the household code was used to give ethical advice to the head of the household, or the patron. The patron was advised as to how he should instruct each member of his household - his slaves, servants, wife, concubine, and children – as to their duties, obligations and how they should behave.

The framework of the household codes serve as a prism of the whole Roman culture. Within the household the male head of the household, the patron, ruled over everyone else and each member of the household was expected to fulfill their various roles and show loyalty and obedience to the patron. In return for their loyalty, obedience, and service, the patron would look after the needs of his subordinates. Within the broader culture the gods, of course, stood at the top of a similar patriarchy. In the first century, the Emperor was elevated almost to the level of the gods. He was worshipped as the son of god and savior of the people. In return for the worship and loyalty of the people, the gods and the emperor served as the protectors of the people. This same framework of patron and client relationships worked through all levels of society with the very wealthy and powerful people at the top and slaves at the very bottom.  

The main ethical values of the society supported this patriarchal framework and the patron client relationships formed within it. The household codes reinforced the cultural value that the patron rightfully ruled over the lesser people in the household. They reinforced the use of power over others and the striving after higher positions of power and prestige. While patrons were encouraged to rule with wisdom and justice, and so forth, compassion, mercy and love for those beneath them were not commended as necessary virtues.

Peter thus uses the framework of the household code in order to subvert the whole system. Rather than addressing rulers and all those in authority, he addresses all people who are under the authority of various patrons – governors, kings, and heads of households. He then addresses slaves and wives. By addressing everyone who is under the authority of a patron, Peter democratizes society. He treats everyone as an image bearer of God, as someone who is ethically responsible. And when he does address those in authority, husbands and later elders, he doesn’t instruct them about how those under their authority should behave, but rather tells them to behave “in the same way” as those under their authority. Again, Peter is not a revolutionary. He still recognizes various levels of authority, but those with authority are admonished not to lord their authority over others. He admonishes husbands to respect their wives and elders to be servants of those they oversee. While the household codes gave all ethical responsibility and authority to the patrons, Peter treats everyone as ethically equal before God.

In our text, then, he summarizes what life within the people of God’s kingdom ought to look like. Instead of a top, down, authoritative structure in which patrons rule over others, Peter says, “live in harmony with one another, be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing.” Instead of maintaining power over others, Peter encourages a mutuality of love and respect. Instead of assuming that everyone should be striving after greater prestige and higher positions, Peter calls everyone to service and humility. In short, he calls us to “set apart Christ as Lord in your hearts.”

In January President Trump argued that the size of the crowd at his inauguration was far bigger than the media reported. When CNN confronted Kelly Ann Conway, a counselor to the President, about this, she said the White House was using “alternative facts.” The media, the park district and others had one set of “facts,” while the White House had its own “facts.” Of course everyone immediately pointed out that both of these sets of “facts” could not be “facts.” One set of facts was indeed factual, the other was not.  The point of all this, however, is that whether one believed the White House’s “alternative facts” or the facts as presented by the mainstream media was probably determined by one’s loyalty to or one’s opposition of President Trump. People are sort of living into different “realities” based on their opinion of the President.

We all live within a moral and ethical framework that is shaped largely by our culture, and this moral framework becomes the reality in which we live. The Romans lived within a moral framework that valued power, authority, duty, and obligation. Here in the United States we live within a cultural moral framework that values individuality and independence, personal choice and autonomy, competition and industriousness, and material and social “success.”  But does this moral framework support, compliment and conform to the moral framework of the Kingdom of God? Does our competitive society encourage us to be sympathetic and compassionate of others? Does our insistence on individual autonomy move us to humility? Is our industriousness aimed at turning from evil to do good, to seek peace and pursue it as Peter says in verse 11? Does our pursuit of success train us and ready us to repay evil and insult with blessing?

The first question for us is are we living according to the true values of the Kingdom of God, that is, the true values of the reality God created, or are we living according to the “alternative values” of a broken world and culture? Do we even recognize that we live within a “reality,” a cultural moral framework, that does not conform to the deeper truths of God’s moral framework? Part of the problem is that we take our cultural moral framework as “just the way things are.” This is the air that we breathe and so we take it as “reality.” But can we see that this “reality” is not in full conformity to the values of the Kingdom of God?

The second question for us is who or what claims our loyalty? Have we set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts? Who or what claims our loyalty will shape the “reality” we live in and the ethical norms we live by. So are we following in the ways of Jesus and being obedient to him so that the values that he lived by become ingrained in us? For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Silence

Lord God, by the power of you Spirit, conform us to Christ and give us the courage and strength to live out the message we have heard today. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

 

 

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May 7, 2017 Free Servants
(1 Peter 2:11-25) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I have two questions for you. First: do you ever play pretend? Do you ever play “house” and pretend to be a mommy or a daddy? Or maybe you pretend to be a doctor or a teacher? When I was young my friends and I liked to pretend that we were spies. What do you like to pretend to be?

Second: what do you do when someone is being mean to you? What do you do when someone makes fun of you or insults you?  Do you call them a name? Maybe you try to think of something even meaner to say to them? I think that is what we often want to do when someone is mean to us. But is it the right thing to do?

The Apostle Peter once wrote to some churches who were being treated badly by the Romans. Peter doesn’t tell them to fight back. Instead he tells them that Jesus left us an example and that they should “follow in his steps.” He says, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not fight back; when he suffered, he made no threats” (1 Peter 2:21-23). He basically tells them to pretend to be Jesus.

If someone is mean to you, instead of fighting back, you can pretend to be like Jesus. You can say something kind to them instead of something mean. You can walk away from them instead of fighting back. And before Jesus suffered on the cross, he went and he prayed to his Father. He talked to God about it. If someone is being mean to you, instead of fighting back you can tell God about it. You can pray about it, but you can also tell your parents about it, because that is just what Jesus did. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

Over the last couple of weeks we have looked at how Peter describes the liminal places in which the church of Christ is called to inhabit. Liminal spaces are in-between places, places on the threshold of the old and the new. First, as those who believe that Christ has risen and ascended to reign over the entire creation, we are a people who live in hope. Hope is a liminal space because we trust that Christ is indeed reigning but yet we long for his return for sin and evil continue to run rampant in the world. Second, Peter calls us to live as sojourners. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, but yet we continue to live in a world with nations that do not recognize the Kingship of Christ. We must live as citizens of the Kingdom in a foreign nation.

Peter has mapped out this liminal space by drawing us into the story of Israel. God chose Israel and called her to live as his holy nation in the midst of the pagan world in order that God’s blessing might flow through Israel to the nations and thus draw the nations to God. Now the church has become the New Israel, as Peter says in 2:9. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out darkness into his wonderful light.” Like Israel, the church finds itself often in liminal spaces – living in the desert where their faith is formed and tested as they await entry into the Promised Land, and living in exile under the oppressive rule of the very pagans Israel is called to bear witness to.

In our text this morning Peter turns from the theological narrative to the practical application; this is our story, how then shall we live? But before we move on, we should note the centrality of Christ in Peter’s story. Peter draws us not only into the story of Israel but also into the story of Christ for Jesus fulfills the story of Israel. In 1:2 the hope we have comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His resurrection assures us that God will be victorious over death and sin, and so will bring us into our inheritance, which is the Kingdom of God. In 1:19 Peter bases our hope in the salvation won for us “with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” In 2:4 and following, Peter teaches us that the church, as God’s chosen people, is being built into the temple of God. The church becomes the place where God is present in the world. But this temple has Christ Jesus as the chief cornerstone, the stone upon which the whole structure is formed.

Notice how Peter portrays Jesus in all these texts. Although Jesus is the “chosen and precious cornerstone,” he is the one “the builders rejected” and the one that “causes men to stumble.” Although Jesus is our savior, he is the sacrificial lamb. Although Jesus is the one who gives us hope for a new life and a new world, he is the one who died in order to bring about salvation and the new creation. Jesus fulfilled the story of Israel by being rejected, sacrificed and killed.

Israel’s story, Christ’s story is the church’s story. How then shall we live? If you look at your Bibles it looks like versus 11-13 form Peter’s conclusion to his theological narrative. But when an author in a Greek letter addresses their audience, when they say something like “Dear friends,” this usually indicates the beginning of a new section. “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles,” based on the story that I just mapped out for you, “abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

The church is called to live in a liminal space as sojourners. Some things the culture around us considers good, we must consider evil, and some things we consider as good, the culture will consider as evil. But we must continue to do what is good, although it is considered evil, and abstain from what is evil but is considered good. In the first century Roman world the Christians were expected to participate in the communal practices of idolatry. As I said two weeks ago, because they were no longer considered Jews and so exempt from such worship, Christians were beginning to be persecuted because they abstained from idolatry.

Religion and idol worship were not seen as private or family practices. Communities practiced idolatry so that the gods would favor the community with rain, so that the fertility gods would assure abundant crops and prolific herds, so that the gods of commerce and travel would protect the merchants. If part of the community abstained from this worship, the gods might become angry with the whole community. But Christians must stand apart from the community when it comes to worshipping idols. In fact, they must stand apart from the entire Roman world.  The basic Christian confession that Jesus is Lord, stood in direct rebellion of the growing emperor cult in which the Roman emperor was worshipped as Lord, Savior, and Son of God.

We must also remember that some of this worship, particularly the worship of the fertility gods, involved sexual activity. Christians not only abstained from this worship because it was idolatrous, but also because it was immoral. The “good deeds” of remaining faithful in marriage and just worshipping Jesus were thus perceived as “evil” because they could possibly harm the community.

The “good deeds” of the church thus led to the persecution of the Christian communities. Peter’s encouragement to them is to live more fully into the story of Christ Jesus. Like Jesus, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority. … For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as slaves of God.” Here again the church is called into a liminal space – live as free slaves.

Like Israel, you are free people. You are not slaves to the pagan nation in which you live. You are not slaves of Pharaoh or of Caesar. Do not obey them or walk in their ways when their ways are contrary to the ways of God for you are free. Yet you are slaves of God. The way to live as free slaves is to humble yourselves as Christ humbled himself and submit to the powers that be when they persecute you. In other words, we are called to disobey immoral demands and cultural norms, but we are not to rebel or incite revolution. We are called to subversion, not violence.

Peter moves from the broader topic of living in a pagan society to the more specific topic of a Christian slave living with a pagan master. We may find Peter’s advice to slaves unsettling for it looks on the surface to condone the institution of slavery. But Peter, along with Paul in similar passages, undercuts and subverts the institution of slavery because he addresses slaves as moral agents. They are actually free people because they are citizens of the Kingdom. They do not have to obey their masters totally and completely in all things for they are free people and slaves of God. They must obey God over and above their masters. But when they do so, they will be punished “for doing good.”

As I noted in the children’s sermon, Peter points us to Christ as an example for how we ought to stand up under unjust suffering. “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving an example, that you should follow in his footsteps.” Instead of retaliating, Jesus “entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Peter then encourages the churches to remember that Jesus has already won their salvation. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed: (21, 23-24).

Now some Christians in the United States will say that Christians are being persecuted. They claim that they are being punished for living out their faith as they believe they are called to do. The first question we should ask, however, is if Christians are being persecuted for their distinctive actions, or if Christianity is losing its privileged position in the United States as the country becomes more diverse and as it seeks to live up to its ideals of not favoring one religion over another. Some Christians want the right to limit the services they provide from gays and lesbians, but what would they say if a Muslim owned restaurant refused to serve women who didn’t wear a hijab?

The second question we should ask is what sort of posture are Christians taking when they believe they are being wronged? Are they looking to Christ as an example? Are they following in his steps? A couple of weeks ago Peter Wehner wrote a piece in the New York Times about Christianity and humility. He writes that although humility is a chief Christian virtue,

“… humility is hardly a hallmark of American Christianity, especially (but by no means exclusively) among those Christians prominently involved in politics. There we often see arrogance, haughtiness and pride, which is not only the ‘original sin’ but also arguably the one most antithetical to a godly cast of mind.” [1]

The third question we should ask is what are the idols of our society that Christians should refuse to worship, and what are the culture norms that we should seek to subvert? Should we not seek to subvert the idea that individuals have absolute autonomy? Should we not refuse to worship and put our trust in the power of the military? Should we not live in ways that subvert our pursuit of unlimited consumption? What are the idols and cultural norms on the University that seduce us away from the worship of God and our faith in Christ?

If we live in ways that subvert the cultural norms of our day, if we refuse to worship the idols of our time, those around us will see our good deeds as evil. But that is the story that we are called to live, for it is the story of Christ Jesus. But we must remember that in following Jesus’ example, in bearing up under unjust persecution and suffering, we won’t save our society. We are not called to make all things right. Our stance in the culture will look foolish and ineffective in bringing about change, because we all know that it takes power to make change. But we are not called to bring about salvation either for ourselves or for anyone else. Rather our humble stance will point others to the suffering of Christ. For it is by his wounds that we and the whole world are healed. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 



[1] Peter Whener, “The Quiet Power of Humility,” The New York Times, April 15, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/15/opinion/sunday/the-quiet-power-of-humility.html?_r=0

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April 30, 2017 Sojourners
(1 Peter 1:13-23) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I would like to tell you a story about two best friends, Arnold and Paul.[1] One day Arnold and Paul were in gym class when the teacher announced that they would be learning to play basketball. The teacher chose four boys to be the captains of the teams and had the captains choose their teams. Arnold got chosen about half way through the class, but Paul was one of the last boys chosen. This made Paul feel miserable. Everyone thought he was the worst basketball player in the class.

Things didn’t get much better. Every day the teacher selected the same captains and every day Paul was the last boy chosen. Then one day the teacher chose Arnold to be a team captain. He hesitated, but then chose Paul as his first pick. Everyone in the class burst out laughing. Arnold at first thought he had made a mistake, but then he got an idea. Next, Arnold chose the second worst player in the class. And then the third and fourth worst players. Arnold chose everyone that all the other captains never wanted to choose.

So how do you think Arnold’s team did against the other team? That’s right, they lost. They were terrible. At first they got frustrated by this, but as they played together they realized that even though they were losing, at least they passed the ball to each other. They got to dribble the ball and they even got a chance to shoot the ball. When the played on the other teams no one ever passed to them and they never got to shoot the ball. So even though they were losing, they finally realized that they were having fun. They stopped caring about winning and they just had fun playing together.

Over and over again in the Bible, the people of Israel are called God’s chosen people. And in the New Testament the apostles Paul and Peter call the church God’s chosen people. But God didn’t choose Israel and God doesn’t choose the church because we are the best people in the world. In fact, God, like Arnold, chooses people others might not choose. The Apostle Paul says that God chooses the weak to shame the strong and and the foolish to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). And God doesn’t choose the church so that the church can win. Rather, the Apostle Peter says that God chose the church to declare God’s praises. [End]

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Last week we looked at how we as Christians live in sort of a puzzling space. We just celebrated the resurrection of Jesus and the beginning of a new age, but yet the world goes on much as it has for thousands of years. The battle over sin and death has been won, yet sin and death remain ever prevalent. Peter begins his letter by calling the churches to live in that space with hope – sure of the inheritance and salvation that they have in Jesus Christ, yet bearing up under the persecution they are experiencing with Christ-like humility and faith.

This space we live in as Christians can be rather puzzling, or confusing, or ambiguous at times because it is a liminal space.  A liminal space is the space of a threshold. It is the space between rooms. It is the space between when one thing ends and another begins. It is sometimes a confusing space because you may not be sure which space you should be in or which way you should go. Sometimes you may feel pulled back into the one space. At others you may feel pushed into the new space.

Last week we skipped over the opening verses of Peter’s letter, but Peter recognizes this liminality right from the beginning. He writes in verse 1, “To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” God’s people are elect, yet they are strangers. They are chosen, yet scattered in the diaspora.

Right from the beginning Peter connects the story of the Christians in Asia Minor, or what is now Turkey, with the story of Israel. Abraham was chosen by God, promised a land but yet he wandered for most of his years throughout Canaan, and then in Egypt. Isaac and Jacob followed in his footsteps. Over the next many centuries Israel remained God’s chosen people, but yet their identity was defined as much by their time in the land of Canaan as by their time in exile in Egypt and Babylon.

If we skim through Peter’s letter, we will notice how Peter continues to make this analogy between his audience and Israel. Like Israel who hoped in the land as their inheritance, Peter put’s his congregations’ hope in “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” He then brings them with Israel into the desert in verse 7 where their troubles and trials “have come so that your faith … may be proved genuine.” Peter brings them to Mount Sinai in verse 15 where they hear God’s call to Israel, “Be holy, as I am holy.” Peter reminds his audience in verse 19 that they, like Israel, have been saved by the blood of a lamb, Jesus Christ. At Mount Sinai God commanded Israel to build a temple, a place where he would dwell with them. In chapter 2 Peter assures his audience that God is building them up to be God’s holy temple. In 2:9 Peter concludes by equating Israel’s identity and vocation with the churches’:  “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

So, on the one hand, Peter assures the churches to whom he writes that they are God’s people. They are the new Israel. But they are not the Israel that lived in the Land of Canaan. They are not the Israel that enjoyed the reign of King David. They are the Israel that lives under the reign of a pagan Empire. They are Israel in Egypt. They are Israel in Babylon. They are the Israel of Jesus’ day who lived under the boot of the same Roman Empire. But yet, on the other hand, their inheritance is secure, and they already experiencing their salvation in Christ. Last week we saw that Peter calls them to live in this liminal space in hope. This week he calls them to live as strangers, as aliens, as sojourners. “Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as sojourners here in reverent fear” (1:17).

So what does it mean to live as a sojourner? Before we consider what it means to live as a sojourner, we ought to examine the nature of the place in which they are called to live. What is the nature of Empire? Now not all empires are the same, but empires often have similar characteristics. Whether it be Egypt under the Pharaohs, Persia under Xerxes, Greece under Alexander, Rome under Caesar, Spain under the Hapsburgs, Britain under Queen Victoria, the Soviet Union under Stalin, Germany under Hitler, China under Mao Zedong, empires have several things in common.

Empires, first of all, believe that they are comprised of a special people. Empires see themselves as the pinnacle, the prime example of humanity. Often they believe themselves to be specially favored by the gods or by the God we Christians worship. This sense of specialness most often works itself out in some forms of privilege and discrimination. The special people or nation will define itself and its special status in terms of its race, ethnicity, religion or ideology. Rome dived the world into Roman citizens and barbarians. Islamic empires have divided the world into Muslims and infidels. Christian empires have often combined religion, ideology, culture, and race as markers of purity. Empires set their own people over and above all others.

This sense of superiority leads to the empire’s sense of calling.  As the pinnacle of humanity, they are called to lead the rest of humanity to a greater level of civilization, enlightenment, progress, or what have you. Rome graced the world with its Pax Romana. Spain was determined to evangelize the Aztecs, the Incans, and all the heathens in Central and South America. England saw its mission as bringing proper civilization to parts of Africa, India, and South East Asia.  Of course, this has often all been carried out in the name of God, for the salvation of the heathen.

The third characteristic follows from the first two. The special people with such a noble calling will be justified in using violence to carry out its mission. Of course violence has many forms. There is brute military force. But there is also economic violence, the takeover of land for the purpose of putting it to proper, civilized economic use. Empires will conscript the labor of the local population all in the name of civilizing the population and giving them proper work. There is cultural violence. Empires often try to force people to assimilate to the dominant culture. Babylon, for instance, uprooted nations and forced them to live in another place in order to uproot them from their own traditions. Empires, in short, are creative in their use and their justification of violence.

You may have noticed some similarities between my description of Empire and Peter’s encouragement to his churches. Both are a “chosen people” that have a special calling, a vocation. The content of these similar characteristics however, are vastly different, and this leads to a third important difference. Empires believe that their people are special and chosen because they are exceptional. They have been chosen because they are the greatest. Peter, however, reminds the churches in 2:18 that before they were chosen, they were “not a people.” Like Israel, God chooses his people not because they are exceptional, but because they are unexceptional. “God choose the weak … to shame the strong … the foolish … to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Second, the calling of God’s people is not to bring others to a higher level of humanity or civilization or what have you, but, as Peter says in 2:9, “to declare the praises  of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” The vocation of God’s people is to bear witness to God. It is God and God alone who enlightens, redeems, and raises humanity to a higher level. The vocation of God’s people is merely to bear witness to God.

These two differences lead to the third difference which is in how God’s people live out their calling. The exceptionalism of an Empire with a special calling justifies its use of violence. God’s unexceptional people are called to bear witness to God by living in love. Peter says in verse 22, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.” He broadens this ethic of love in 2:1: “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” And verse 11, “as aliens and sojourners in the world, abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”  In 3:8 he says, “live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing … seek peace and pursue it.” Empires justify violence; God’s people are called to respond to violence with love.

Friends, we live in a nation that embodies the characteristics of an Empire. The one thing all politicians in America agree upon is that we are an exceptional nation. Every politician ends every political speech with, “God bless America,” and that is said as much as a prayer as a conviction. And because we Americans believe that God does bless America, we believe we have a charge, a calling to bless the rest of the world with our form of democracy and capitalism. This, in turn, leads us to spend more money on our military than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the UK, India, France, and Japan combined. It leads for cries to round up and deport more immigrants. It leads to promises to ban Muslims from entering the country. It leads, in short, to various and creative forms of violence.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love this country. I admire its ideals of equality, freedom and justice. But this is what it means to live as a sojourner. It means to live in a land but not to identify fully with it. God sent a letter through Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon and told them to seek the peace of the city in which they live. There is much that is commendable about the United States and other Empires. As sojourners we identify those aspects and live within them. We seek the peace and flourishing of land in which we live.

But as sojourners we are called to live in a liminal space. As sojourners we recognize that the land in which we live is neither wholly good nor wholly evil. We live in this land, but we are citizens of God’s Kingdom. As citizens of the Kingdom we live in God’s Kingdom now because we “set our hope fully on the grace to be given [us] in Jesus Christ.”  We live as “obedient children” striving to “be holy because [God is] holy.”  And so we live our lives in love, “loving one another deeply from the heart. For [we] have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of in imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”

We live in a liminal space, living in the hope of the kingdom through love, but also abstaining from the evil ways of the nation in which we live. We “do not conform to the evil desires” surrounding us. We leave behind the “empty way of life handed down to us” by the culture. And we “rid ourselves of all malice and al deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” We abstain from the ways in which the nation violates the ways of God, perpetuates violence against the weak and the oppressed, and justifies its actions by claiming superiority over others. Instead of contributing to the culture of violence, we foster a culture of neighborliness for the greatest commandment is to love God above all else and your neighbor as yourself. To live as a sojourner is to “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”  In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.



[1] “Loosiers,” The Wonder Years, Season 2, Episode 9, ABC, 1989.

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April 16, 2017 A Hidden Life
(Colossians 3:1-4) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do you all know who Wonder Woman is? How about Superman? They are superheroes, aren’t they? Do you have a favorite superhero? So if you could have any super power, what would it be? Would you like to be able to fly? Or climb up walls like Spiderman? Or maybe just be super fast, or super strong? Or maybe you might like to be able to breathe underwater. That would be cool, wouldn’t it?

This morning is Easter. And I know you can tell me what happened on Easter. Jesus rose from the dead. Have you ever wondered what that has to do with us? Sure it’s amazing that Jesus rose from the dead, but that was 2,000 years ago. What difference does that make for us?

The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to some Christians in the city of Collossae, and he said, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (3:1-3)

Did you hear anything interesting in what Paul said? He said, “you have been raised with Christ.” Now we believe that after we die and when Jesus comes back to earth again, we too will be raised from the dead. But Paul isn’t talking to a bunch of dead people. He is talking to people who are still living and he says, “you have been raised with Christ.”

You see, if we believe in Jesus, we have a superpower. If we believe in Jesus we have already been raised from the dead. We have been raised to a new way of living. Paul talks about these two ways of living. In one way of living people fight each other, they are mean to each other, they lie, and cheat and they don’t treat other people with respect. That is the dead way of living, according to Paul. But because we believe in Christ, we have been raised to the living way of living. And the living way of living is to be kind to others and generous. It is to know when to feel sorry for other people. The living way of living is to forgive those who are mean to us. It is be gentle and patient. But most of all, the living way of living is to love other people. So, if you believe in Jesus, you have been raised from the dead, like he was raised from the dead, and that means that you can start using the most powerful superpower in the world – love. [End]

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This past week the devotional book I use had me read all four accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was interesting to note the differences and even contradictions in the various accounts. There are only a few stories that are in all four gospels, but invariably they have discrepancies and frequently contradictions.

The same holds true for the stories about the resurrection of Jesus. The four accounts differ on how many women came to the tomb and the names of the women who came. In some stories they meet one angel, in others two. They differ on when they meet Jesus, and Mark ends the story before anyone actually sees Jesus.

Now some Biblical scholars will try to reconcile these accounts. They fear that these contradictory elements demonstrate that the stories are false, but I would argue the exact opposite. If Christians made up the story that Jesus rose from the dead, they would have got the story straight. Instead, what we have are stories told by different people that were handed down over a few decades before they were written down. In real life eye witness accounts of the same event have discrepancies and contradictions. The stories have a ring of authenticity because they sound like the came from different witnesses yet they all agree on the most important facts: Jesus died, was buried, some women came to the tomb early on Sunday morning, they found it empty, but then Jesus appeared to his disciples, not just once, but several times. Of course this last piece is missing from Mark, but why would anyone write the Gospel of Mark if no one ever did actually see Jesus after he rose from the dead.

And if Christians made this story up, why did they insert things that don’t make much sense or seem irrelevant to the story? Why, for instance, would someone make up the fact that the other disciple reached the tomb first but didn’t go in, and that Peter, coming second, went straight in? Why in the world would you end a story where Mark ends his story before anyone sees Jesus if you were trying to tell a lie about Jesus rising from the dead? And why does the Gospel of John include this strange encounter between Jesus and Mary in which Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus and Jesus doesn’t want Mary to hold on to him?

This encounter between Jesus and Mary not only has the mark of authenticity for its strangeness, but also demonstrates that the gospel writers were not just trying to convince people that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. They recorded these stories in order to teach the significance of the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection is not just a miracle; it has significance for our lives. In Matthew and Luke the focus of the resurrection stories is not so much on the resurrection itself, but on the instructions for the disciples to go to Galilee where Jesus will meet them. And in each it is in Galilee where Jesus commissions his disciples to continue his mission. The significance of the resurrection, according to Luke and Mathew, is that it vindicates Jesus’ ministry as the Messiah of the Jews and the Savior of all people and thus inaugurates the mission of the church. The same can be said for Mark.

In the Gospel of John, the significance of the resurrection is that Jesus’ followers are invited to put their faith in Jesus so that they too can have a new life. Jesus tells Mary not to hold on to him because he hasn’t ascended into heaven. He cannot stay here on earth because his resurrection marks a new age, a new creation, if you will. He must ascend into heaven and take his place on the throne of God in order to begin his reign over this new age. This is what the Gospel of John calls eternal life. Eternal life is not so much a quantitative idea, as in living an infinite number of years into the future, but a qualitative idea. Eternal life is life lived to its fullest, as God meant us to live it. Eternal life is life lived in the presence of, or more so, in full communion with the God of all life.

In the rest of John Jesus appears several times to the disciples in order to invite them to turn away from death and toward eternal life. He meets the disciples in the upper room and invites them to turn from a life lived in fear of those in power to a life empowered by the Spirit and sent into world by the Father. He invites Thomas to turn from doubt to faith. And he invites Peter to turn away from a life of denial to a life of service. In overall theme, John agrees with the other gospels. The significance of the resurrection is that it becomes the basis for a life of faithful service continuing Jesus’ mission in the world.

The apostle Paul expands on the significance of the resurrection of Jesus for our lives here and now. He says, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:1-3)

At first glance Paul might seem to be saying that the resurrection of Jesus makes this life less relevant. Rather than thinking about this life, about “earthly things,” we should just think of the next life, “of heavenly things.” But heaven is not a future reality. It is the realm where God dwells, and so it is in that sense now and eternal. It is also the place where Jesus now sits on the throne, but that means it is the place from which he reigns over this world now. While heaven and earth are different realms, they are not completely separate. In fact, the result of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, as we read on Friday night, was that that the veil in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies was ripped in two. The Holy of Holies was the one particular place on earth where God’s presence dwelt. It was a piece of heaven on earth, if you will. When Jesus’s sacrifice was complete heaven, in a sense, was let loose upon the earth. God’s dwelling place began to break out of heaven and spill onto earth. When the kingdom of God is fully manifest in the age to come, as we see in the book of Revelation, God’s dwelling will be on earth. Earth will be enveloped by heaven.

So how does this help us understand Paul? What is the difference between “earthly” and “heavenly” things? The distinction between “heavenly things” and “earthly things” is not a temporal distinction, and it is now becoming less of a spatial distinction, rather there remains a moral distinction. To have our “heart set on things above” is, as Paul says in verse 5, “to put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed.”  It is to rid ourselves of “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language.” It is to no longer lie, but to live in the truth that all people Gentile or Jew, barbarian or Roman, slave or free, male or female, black or white, Asian or Indian, were all made to be united in Christ Jesus.

To set our hearts on heavenly things is to leave behind the earthly moral framework. In the earthly moral framework we think first of our selves. We trust in our own powers or on the powers of false gods because we must fend for ourselves in this life. And so we rely on manipulation and coercion to get our own way. In the earthly moral framework we are what we take from life and achieve in life.

But to set our hearts on heavenly things is to live within a new moral framework. It is to trust that our true and full lives are hidden with Christ. There is nothing we can suffer in this world that can separate us from our connection to the Prince of Peace and the God of Life. We are a “chosen people,” Paul says, “holy and dearly loved.” Our connection to God is based on his will and his grace. This frees us to live in this new moral framework guided by “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” It gives us the ability to truly forgive others for we have been forgiven ourselves. It gives us the greatest power in the cosmos. “Over all these virtues,” Paul says, “put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

The significance of Jesus’s resurrection for us here and now, according to Paul, complements the teaching of the Gospels. In the gospel stories the resurrection and ascension of Jesus are the catalyst for the mission of the disciples. It is as if Jesus spent three years training his disciples so that his mission could be multiplied by his disciples upon his resurrection and ascension. His resurrection vindicated his life. His resurrection proves that living a life in which you bring good news to the poor, heal the sick, cast out demons, and speak truth to power is the way to true and eternal life. His ascension into heaven means that this way of life now reigns over all things. Those who put their faith in Christ are now called and empowered to live in this same way. 

And so as we carry on the mission of Jesus in the world by living into the new heavenly moral framework, we bring a sense of God’s presence into the world. We ourselves become a foretaste, a sign, of what life will be like when God dwells fully on earth. If only we would live in compassion, kindness, gentleness, peace, and over all these things put on love which binds them and us in perfect unity. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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April 9, 2017 What Wondrous Love
(Matthew 26:17-30) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do any of you have grandparents? I did too when I was young, but they lived in Michigan and we lived in Ohio, so I didn’t see them much. We would see them maybe over Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then in the summer again. Where do your grandparents live? Do you get to see them often? Do you ever talk to them over the phone or through Skype? We didn’t have Skype when I was young, but we talked to them on the phone once in a while.

So what do you talk about? Maybe you talk about what you are doing in school, or what activities you are doing, or your friends. Maybe you talk about what you did with them the last time they were here. Or maybe you talk about their next visit. So talking to your grandparents on the phone or through Skype sort of brings you together with them, doesn’t it? You can hear them and maybe see them, but you can’t touch them, can you? They are sort of here in one way, but not in another way.

That is sort of how it is with Jesus. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is with us in some ways, but he remains not with us in another way. You see after Jesus rose from the dead and before he ascended into heaven, he told his disciples that he would be with them always. And then at Pentecost, Jesus sent his Spirit to his disciples. So when we eat the Lord’s Supper, we remember all the things Jesus did when he was here on earth, how he died on the cross for our sins and rose from the grave. But we also remember his promise that he would be with us through his Sprit. And sort of like with your grandparents, we can talk with Jesus, not through a telephone, but through prayer. So Jesus is in some sense with us.

But when we eat the Lord’s Supper, we also remember that he promised to come back again and that when he does, he will gather his whole church together for one big feast. So if he promised to return it also means that he is not with us in some way too. Because we can’t touch him or see him, right? But when we eat the Lord’s Supper, we look forward to when Jesus will be totally with us. It is sort of like talking with your grandparents about when they will visit next. So next time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, I want you to remember how it is sort of like talking with your grandparents on the phone. Remember that we celebrate the ways Jesus was with us, but also the ways he is with us now, and that he will be with us fully when he come again. [End]

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The anonymous hymn, “What Wondrous Love Is This,” first appeared in a Methodist hymnal in 1811.  In 1840 it was set to the tune we now call “Wondrous Love.” The tune, however, was an old English ballad about an infamous 17th century pirate named Captain Kidd. The song went like this:

My name was Robert Kidd, when I sailed, when I sailed;

My name was Robert Kidd, when I sailed;

My name was Robert Kidd, God's laws I did forbid,

So wickedly I did when I sailed, when I sailed

So wickedly I did when I sailed.

The song goes on to detail some of the wicked exploits of Robert Kidd, such as shooting William Moore, one of his crew members, and how Kidd rejected his Christina faith. It is somewhat ironic that we sing a tune that recounts the life and death of a villainous pirate in order to glorify the love of Christ Jesus which he demonstrated through the cross. But Jesus’ life and death are full of irony. Things turn out in ways contrary to what we might expect.

This morning we celebrated Jesus’ final entrance into Jerusalem. It is a week before the Passover, one of the most important feasts for the Jews. It is a politically charged time because Passover was a politically charged feast. With the Passover the Jewish people celebrated their liberation from slavery from the Egyptians when God led them out of Egypt and to the Promised Land through Moses. The celebration also enabled the people to remember and celebrate their return to Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon. The celebration was politically charged because the nation remained under the occupation of the Romans. The Passover was sort of an Independence Day celebration, but it was obvious to all that the nation was not independent. On the Passover the people’s hopes of deliverance and freedom from Rome were heightened. They not only celebrated their liberation in the past, but looked forward in hope that God would liberate them again.

Jesus takes full advantage of these hopes and dreams and orchestrates his entrance into the city accordingly. He has been gaining in popularity, drawing large crowds wherever he goes. He is known as a great and rather controversial teacher. He is known as a powerful healer. Many regard Jesus as a prophet. Many are wondering if he is the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ, the Son of David who will lead the people into freedom from the Romans and become their king.

Jesus orders his disciples to find a donkey and its colt. He mounts the donkey and rides down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem in order to evoke the imagery of Zechariah, one of Israel’s prophets: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The people long for the return of their king. They hope for someone who will come and deliver them from the oppression of the Romans. They long for a Messiah who will lead them to victory on a war horse. But Jesus comes to them as the prophet foretold, humble and riding on a donkey. And he comes to bring redemption not through war, but through the end of war. The next verse in Zechariah says: “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

The irony of Jesus’ life and death continue in our second gospel lesson this morning. The powers that be are plotting Jesus’ death and Judas conspires with the chief priests to find a time when they can arrest Jesus. Things seem to be spiraling out of control. It looks as though the powers that be will determine the fate of Jesus. But who is really in control here?

Just as a week before when he comes into Jerusalem, Jesus sets the scene. He sends his disciples to find a certain man and to tell him that Jesus will celebrate the Passover at his house because, Jesus says, “My appointed time is near.”

While they are eating the Passover, Jesus reveals the plot set against him. “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples are astounded. Eating with someone was a sign of intimacy and friendship. The Passover meal was also a meal one ate with one’s family, yet Jesus says, “One who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me,” that is, “One who is dining with me, a friend, a member of my family, will betray me.” While each of the disciples seeks assurance that it isn’t he who will betray Jesus, Jesus calls Judas out, thus forcing his hand. In 26:5 the chief priests plotted to arrest Jesus, but they wanted to wait until after the feast lest they spark a riot. But now that Jesus reveals that he is on to Judas, Judas wastes no time in bringing the temple guards to arrest Jesus later that same night.

But back at the Passover meal, Jesus indicates that the events about to transpire will not be the defeat they will appear to be, but a new exodus, a new deliverance for God’s people. As they are eating the Passover meal, as they are celebrating God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt, Jesus takes some bread and says, “Take and eat; this is my body.” During the Passover meal, it was typical for the head of the household to explain some of the elements of the meal, to give a sort of mini sermon on the meaning of the different things they ate during the meal. The bread that Jesus takes is unleavened bread. When God liberated Israel from Egypt, he commanded them to prepare bread without yeast because they wouldn’t have time to wait for the bread to rise. By saying that this bread is “my body,” Jesus is indicating that he himself is going to instigate a new liberation. He will be the sustenance for God’s people in this new deliverance. To be delivered is to depend upon Jesus.

Jesus then takes a cup of wine. Traditionally there are four cups of wine served during the Passover meal which represent the ways God delivers his people. Jesus takes the cup served right after the meal and says, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” He thus indicates that the deliverance he is going to bring about is not just a political deliverance, but a deeper deliverance. He will deliver God’s people from the slavery and the power of sin. In doing so, he will establish a new covenant, a new relationship between God and his people. Although Jesus will die a grueling and humiliating death on the cross, a brutal instrument of tortuous execution, it will not be a defeat, but a victory. For Jesus says to his disciples, “I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” In other words, whatever you may see in the coming days, the day of God’s kingdom is coming and Jesus will be present with all his disciples and very much alive in that kingdom.

And so when we re-enact this scene, when we eat the Lord’s Supper, we are called upon to take up the same posture and the same faith as Jesus. We are called to enter an ironic space in which we trust that things will turn out differently than the way they seem. It may seem that the powerful call the shots. It may seem that violence can only be overcome with violence. It may seem that the brokenness and wickedness present in this world are just the way things are and always will be. But we know that Jesus died, that he rose up the dead, and that he will come again.

To live in this ironic space is sort of like singing “What Wondrous Love Is This” to the tune of Robert the Kidd. The tune we sing bears witness to the sinfulness and the brokenness of this world. It reveals the truth about the way things are. It refuses to deal in “alternative facts.” It speaks truth to power. It calls out the hypocrisy of those who oppress the weak and the poor in the name of security, or prosperity, or the common good. In singing this tune we stand with those whom society has cast aside. By this tune we continue the ministry of Jesus to heal the sick, to cast out demons, and to preach good news to the poor and release from captivity to all those who are in darkness.

But while we sing the tune of the reality of the sinfulness and brokenness of the world, the words we sing confess a deeper reality. The words we sing proclaim that the wondrous love of God took on flesh in Jesus Christ and led him to take up a cross. The words we sing proclaim that Jesus took on the curse of sin and death for my soul and for the salvation of the world. The words we sing proclaim that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and leads us into a new exodus free from the slavery and power of sin. The words that we sing proclaim that we and all God’s people will be freed from death itself and that we will sing throughout eternity in the full and lasting presence of Jesus Christ, our Lord, our Savior, our King. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

God of all,

you gave your only-begotten Son to take the form of a servant,

and to be obedient even to death on a cross.

Give us the same mind that was in Christ Jesus,

that, sharing in his humility,

we may come to be with him in his glory,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.

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April 2, 2017 Take off the grave clothes.
(John 11:17-45; Romans 8:6-17) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Suppose one day you ask your mom if she could show you how to cook a meal. She says OK and you pull up a chair to the counter. She shows you how to chop up the vegetables, while she skins and cuts up the chicken. She then gathers all the spices she needs and you watch as she cooks the chicken and then adds the vegetables and the spices. You then leave the dish to simmer for a while. You help her put the rice on the stove and then you help set the table. When the rice and chicken are done, you bring the dishes to the table and call the rest of the family. After you pray, you reach for the rice. But as you begin to scoop some onto your plate, you mom says, “Wait. What are you doing?” “I am getting some rice,” you say. “Oh, but everything looks so nice as it is,” your mom says, “Let’s not spoil it all by eating it.”

Or suppose you go to your friend’s house and you decide to play with his train set. You spend about 45 minutes connecting all the tracks in just the way you want them. You set out some buildings alongside the tracks, and you even set out some roads and you place some cars and trucks on them. When everything is all set up, you both kind of sit back to admire the little town you have created. But when you reach for one of the trains to start playing with it, your friend says, “Wait. What are you doing?”  “I am playing,” you say. “Oh let’s not play with it. If we do, it will get all messed up. It looks so nice as it is, let’s just keep it like this.”

Now that doesn’t make much sense, does it? You cook a meal in order to eat it don’t you? And you have toys so that you can play with them, right? Well why do you suppose we come to church every week to worship God? Well, we worship God because God is God. He created us and in Jesus he saves us, right?  Worshipping God is probably the most important thing we do. So why don’t we come to church every day to worship God? And why don’t we worship God all day, every day? 

Well, at the end of every worship service, I say to the congregation, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” And then I say God’s blessing, “May the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always.” At the end of every worship service God sends us out to obey him and follow Jesus in all we do during the week. So we worship God on Sunday so that we can live for him during the week. But God doesn’t just send us out into the world alone. He blesses us. His blessing is like a promise that he will watch over us and that nothing can separate us from his love.  So as you go to Children’s worship, we are going to sing a blessing for you. (We sing “May the Peace of Christ Be with you.” # 949) [End]

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I asked this question earlier, but I will ask it again: why do we worship? What is the purpose or goal of worship? I have been encouraging you over the past weeks to engage in worship as a spiritual discipline, or, if you don’t like the word discipline, a spiritual practice. I have also said that spiritual disciplines are practices we engage in to place ourselves before the Spirit of God so that he might transform us.

Robert Mulholland defines spiritual formation as “a process of being formed in the image of Christ for the sake of others.”[1] I would amend that by saying we that it is not just for the sake of any others, but for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Spiritual formation is the process whereby the Spirit of God transforms us into the image of Christ so that we participate in God’s mission to reconcile the world to himself and establish his kingdom, his reign over all creation.

The last movement in our worship service reminds us that we worship for a purpose that is outside of ourselves. We worship for the sake of others. We worship for the kingdom of God. We worship in order to be prepared to participate in God’s mission to reconcile the world. In the last movement of the worship service we are sent into the world with God’s blessing to do his bidding.

So what is God’s bidding? What does our participation in God’s mission look like? Many Christians will immediately point to Matthew 28 and the great commission – we are sent to all nations to make disciples - or to Luke 24 – we are sent to the ends of the earth to bear witness to Jesus. Of course that is part of how we participate in God’s mission, but our texts this morning paint a broader picture, a more holistic picture of our participation in God’s mission.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans we are perhaps reminded of where we began this series, with the confession of sin. In verse 13 we read, “if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” It is in the confession of sin that we “put to death the misdeeds of the body,” and in hearing the assurance of pardon that we are assured, as Paul says in verse 11, that “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ form the dead will also give life to your mortal bodied because of the Spirit who lives in you.”

Earlier in verse 3 and 4 Paul argues that through this participation in Christ our sinful selves are put to death, or condemned, “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” We are forgiven so that we may live lives of righteousness. But the purpose of our new life is much broader than just individual piety. In verse 15 Paul says, “The Sprit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. … Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.”

Now we hear echoes of the call to worship and of our baptism. We are called by God, adopted by him to be his children. But that means we are heirs. It means we inherit something. So what do we inherit? In verse 18 we read, “I consider our present suffering not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation itself was subject to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

Our inheritance is the creation. Like the son of a wealthy landowner, we are set to inherit an estate. But we inherit the estate not so that we can just sit back and relax and enjoy our wealth. One inherits an estate in order to manage the estate. The son must manage the grape and olive production. He must oversee the shepherding of the flocks, the processing of the wool, the pressing of the olives, the making of the wine, the sale of all that is produced on the estate, and also make sure that those who work on and for the estate are properly and justly cared for. Estates in Jesus’ day were whole economies. They had numerous agricultural and industrial business all being run at once. The word “economy” comes from the Greek words oikos and nomos, house and law. An economy is the law or the ruling of a household or an estate.

But our estate, the estate we are to inherit as children of God, is the creation itself. The glory that will be revealed in us is the glory of the creation itself as we take up our original calling as stewards of the creation and begin caring for and ruling over the creation as we were supposed to do. This is how the creation will be brought into the “freedom and glory of the children of God.”

That means that your participation in the mission of God to reconcile the world to himself and to bring in his kingdom can be found not just in being an evangelist, but also in being a scientist – someone who increases our human knowledge of how the physical world works so that we can establish dominion over the creation and so that we know better how to care for the creation and for society.  It can be found in being an artist or a musician – someone who creates and adds beauty to our lives or speaks through art as a prophet challenging and moving us towards a more just society. It can be found in being a nurse or a doctor or any of the healing professions. It can be found in the humanities as those who examine human history and human thought, helping us understand ourselves and our societies, so that we can be and act more justly. And, of course, it can be found in the act of production whether that be in the production of food or of consumer goods or the production of entertainment, producing things that are necessary and good for human life and all of life in creation to flourish. Our participation in the mission of God is to encourage the flourishing of life.

Jesus came to fulfill that mission for us and to lead us in that same mission. In John 10:10, Jesus compares himself to a shepherd caring for his sheep and says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” In chapter 11 he hears that his good friend, Lazarus is ill and he knows that Lazarus will die. Once Lazarus dies, Jesus makes his way to Bethany. Martha confronts Jesus saying, “if you had been here my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus responds, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answers, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” But Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Jesus came to give life now, not just in the age to come.

Jesus therefore goes to the tomb in which Lazarus was laid four days earlier. He orders that the stone be moved away from the entrance and he calls out, “Lazarus, come out.” Lazarus comes out wrapped in strips of linen as was the burial custom of the day. “Take off the grave clothes,” Jesus says, “and let him go.”

Jesus could have had Lazarus keep the grave clothes on as a reminder and proof of his miracle. What a witness for evangelism that would have been. But if we are to bare witness to Jesus and tell people the good news, the good news is that Jesus came so that all may have life and have it to the full both for now and eternity. Just so we read in verse 45, “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Martha, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” And so the purpose of the Christian life is not just to be saved for a future life in heaven. The purpose of the Christian life is to live in and before the presence of God, a life that begins here and now and continues on into the next life.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is Lord of this life and the age to come. The resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus’ own resurrection vindicate and affirm the value of the life we are living here and now.

Jesus orders that they take off the grave clothes that cling to Lazarus’ body. He orders that they strip off the reminders of the grave and the remnants of death so that Lazarus can live this life fully once again.

I think the imagery here invites us to ask, what are our grave clothes? Take one of the strips of cloth that are being passed around in the baskets and ask yourself, “What are the things that cling to you or that you cling to that prevent you from living fully?” What prevents you from living as a faithful steward of the creation as we were called to live? What keeps you from living justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God? What keeps you from living your life for the sake of the Kingdom of God? Is there some sin that keeps clinging to you? Are you filled with pride, or anger, or resentment, or jealousy? Are you captivated by a false desire? Do you put your hope in the things of this world – money, power, “success” – rather than the creator of the world? Are you held back by a truncated gospel that denies the goodness of this life and teaches that our goal is to escape this life? Do you divide your life between a private, religious life in which you are guided by God’s ways, and a public life in which you live by the ways of the secular Academy? Do you suffer from some addiction that captivates you and controls you?  Are you imprisoned by some fear – fear of what some political leader may do, fear of global warming, fear of those who are different from you?  What is it that prevents you from living life to the full and so being a true witness of Jesus Christ?

Hear the call of Jesus, “Take off the grave clothes. I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Turn to 904 (1-2,4-5). As we sing “Lord, make us servants,” take off your grave clothes and cast them in the baskets. But first let us begin with a silent prayer asking God to enable you to cast aside your grave clothes.


[1] M. Robert Mulholland Jr and Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation, Revised and Expanded edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016), 19.

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March 26, 2017 Testimony
(John 9:1-41) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there was a young girl who loved to go to the swimming pool. The summer before she had actually learned how to swim and had swum across the whole length of the pool. That meant that, if she wanted to, she could jump off the diving board in the deep end of the pool. She had wanted to, but she had been a bit too scared. This year she promised herself that she would do it.

As spring turned into summer and the weather got warmer, she begged her mom to take her to the pool on the first day it was open. Well, right away she went over to the diver board, but she stood at the bottom of the ladder. She realized she was still scared. So she went and swam the whole length of the pool just to assure herself she could still do it. But she didn’t go back to the diving board. And she didn’t go the next time they went to the pool, or the next time, or the next time. She really wanted to jump off the diving board, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it.

Now her mom had been watching her this whole time. She saw how she would hesitate when they came into the pool, and then make a step toward the diving board, but then turn the other way to the shallow end. She saw how she would look over at the diving board from time to time, and then start walking toward the board, but then pretend like she was just going for a walk around the pool. So one day her mom asked, “Don’t you want to go off the diving board?” “No,” the girl lied. “It doesn’t look all that fun.” “You know,” her mom said, “sometimes if we say we are going to do something it gives us the courage and strength to do it, even if we are a little bit scared.” “You mean if I just say I want to jump off the diving board, it will make it easier to do?” she asked. “Yes,” her mom said. … “Well, do you have anything to say?”  The girl looked at her and said, “I am going to go and jump off the diving board.” And then she went and did just as she said.

Sometimes it is important not only to want something or to feel something or to believe something, but also to say it. It is important not only to love your parents, but also to tell them that you love them. It is important not only to feel sorry for something you have done, but also to say that you are sorry. It is not only important to believe that Jesus is our Lord and King, but also to say it. By saying he is our Lord and King we sort of promise to obey him, to love him, and to trust in him. So this morning we sang a song that helped us say that we believe in Jesus. Will you say parts of that song with me? OK, repeat after me:

Jesus is risen from the dead and he is Lord;

He will draw all nations to him; he is King!

He has shown us by his life that he is Love!

He has died to set us free; Jesus is Life!

(He is Lord, by Marvin Frey) [End]

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If you haven’t noticed you might say that we have a rather liturgical form of worship here at Hessel Park. Unlike some churches, we say a lot of prayers together. We often read the psalms out loud in a responsive way. In some churches the congregation only participates when they sing, but we say a lot of things together in this church.

Now some criticize this type of worship because they say that when we say words in a litany that are given to us, or when we say the same prayer of confession over and over again, week after week, the words become empty of any true meaning. They say that the congregation doesn’t really worship God through these words but that they just mindlessly read the script before them. True worship, they argue, should be more spontaneous so that it really comes from our hearts and from the Spirit of God in us.

But there is something about words, spoken words, that are important. It is, you may recall, through words that God made the universe. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and here was light” (Genesis 1:3). And the evangelist starts the Gospel of John telling us that “in the beginning was the Word.” That “the Word was God,” and that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1,14). While it is abundantly clear today that words can be twisted into falsehoods, that they can be empty and meaningless, words are often necessary for making what we feel and believe concrete. Words can make our beliefs and our emotions take on flesh.

In our gospel lesson this morning the testimony of the man born blind moves him toward deeper levels of faith in Jesus. When Jesus heals the blind man on the Sabbath, the man becomes the object of intense interrogation. Some of the townspeople don’t believe that he was the same man who had been blind, so they ask him how he came to see. He tells them, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see” (11).

They take him to the Pharisees to sort things out. The Pharisees, however, learn that the man claims that Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. They doubt the miracle because healing on the Sabbath would be a sin. Some say, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they ask the man, “What do you say about him?”  He is a prophet,” the man replies (16-17).

After talking to his parents, the Pharisees haul the man before them again. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.” The man says to them, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see! … Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (24-25,32).

Slowly, as this man is pressed about who he thinks Jesus is first by the people in the town and then by the Pharisees, his belief in Jesus grows. At first he calls Jesus, “the man they call Jesus.” He then calls Jesus a prophet and finally says he is “from God.” By having to confess over and over again who this man thinks Jesus is, he comes to grips with the truth that Jesus’ miracle reveals him to be someone extraordinary, a prophet who has come from God.

Jesus hears that the Pharisees had thrown him out of the synagogue so he seeks him out. When Jesus meets him, he encourages him to take another step of faith. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Now we often think of belief as mere intellectual assent to some proposition. But faith includes trust. We might better translate this, “Do you trust in the Son of Man?” The man asks, “Who is he, sir? Tell me so that I may have faith in him.” Already the man demonstrates trust in Jesus. He trusts Jesus so much that he is willing to put his trust in whoever Jesus tells him to. “You have now seen him; in fact,” Jesus replies, “he is the one speaking with you.” “Lord,” the man replies, “I have faith,” and he bowed down and worshipped him.” The man’s confessions eventually lead him to not only have faith in Jesus, but to worship him.

Over the past weeks we have looked at the first three movements in our worship service. We have seen that each week we remind ourselves that the church is born out of the initiative of God’s call to us and lives by the power of the Holy Spirit among and within us. In the service of confession we remember that we are in Christ because we are on a journey in which we die more and more to our old and sinful selves so that we may be made alive by the power of the Spirit in order to share in the life of Christ. In the service of the Word that life in Christ comes to full expression as we read the story of God’s mission in and for the world. We see that we have been called by God, forgiven by God, and given new life in Christ in order to play a part in God’s ongoing mission to reconcile the world to himself.

While all of worship involves an ongoing conversation – God calls us to worship and respond with praise, God calls us to confess our sins and we pray, “Lord, have mercy” – the service of Thanksgiving is in large part our response to all that has happened so far in the worship service. In the Song of Response we respond to the particular call we heard in the Service of the Word. We pledge our allegiance to our triune God and our connection to the global church through our confession of faith as we recite the Apostle’s Creed. And in the Offering and Prayer of Thanksgiving we pledge in word and deed to live our lives in service to God and Christ’s Kingdom in gratitude for all he has done for us and for the world.

In the Service of Thanksgiving we pledge to do what God will send us out to do in the last section of the service, the Sending. Now critics of liturgical worship have a point. They know that, as we read in the story of Samuel and David, God looks at the heart and not at outward appearances. Our words mean nothing if they are not said from out of our hearts. But if they are said from our hearts, I believe they are one way in which we cooperate with the work of the Spirit. If they are said from the heart, they are effective in shaping and transforming us into the image of Christ Jesus.

It is not just in worship, you know, that our words have such an effect. There is a reason the President of the United States doesn’t just sign a paper before the Supreme Court and the Congress promising to uphold the constitution. There is a reason, he, or hopefully soon she, makes a public oath before millions of people on the National Mall and watching on TV. There is a reason couples say before the church and their families and friends, “I take you to be my wife,” and “I take you to be my husband.” Words said bind people to the promises they make. And, like the man born blind, when we publicly say what we believe or what we promise, we become more resolved to do what we say and we believe more deeply and fully what we have professed.

In this way the Service of Thanksgiving is a means of grace for us. When we say the Apostles’ Creed together, our faith in the one, true God, becomes more deeply implanted in us. When we say “I believe in God the Father, creator of heaven and earth,” the Spirit assures us that the God who created all things from far away galaxies to the microbes in the soil, is our Father who created us and who loves us, just like he loves the entire creation.  And when we say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord” the Spirit assures us that though we turned away from God, he did not abandon us in our sin, but came to us in the flesh to be our healer, our savior, and our King. And when we say, I believe in the Holy Spirit, we are assured that God has sent us the gift of the Holy Spirit to join us to Christ, to gather us into the communion of the saints, and to empower us to live a new life of righteousness. Graced by the love, the forgiveness and the very presence of God in our lives, we are made ready to be sent out to serve God in faithfulness by loving others as Christ has loved us. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen

“Take us as we are, O God, and claim us as your own.

As once you chose to tell your love in human flesh and bone.

So let our lives be used to make your saving purpose known.” Amen

                                    (Take Us as We Are, O God, by Carl P. Daw Jr.)

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March 19, 2017 Living Water
(John 4:5-42) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Have you ever played hide and seek? Yeah? So if I have it right, when you play hide and seek, one person is It. The person who is It shuts her eyes and counts to 100 while everyone else goes and hides. She then goes around and tries to find everyone. So who wins in hide and seek? The last person to be found, right? The person with the best hiding spot.

Well we like to play a game in my family called Beckon, beckon. To beckon means to call someone to you. The game is something like hide and seek. The person who is It counts to 100 while everyone else runs off and hides, but the object of the game is for the hiders to sneak back to the base before the person who is It sees them. If he sees you he just calls out your name and you get put in the prison by the base. Then you call out, “Beckon, beckon. I need a beckon,”  and the other hiders can free you by beckoning you like this (waves hand). When you have received a beckon you are free and you can run and hide again, but you have to make sure you don’t get caught by the person who is it as you run off.

So the winner of Beckon, Beckon is the person who makes it back to base first without being caught. So if a person just stays in his hiding spot the whole time and is the last person found, then he isn’t the winner like in Hide and Seek. So when you are playing a game, it matters what game you are playing, doesn’t it. What you do, whether you stay hiding or if you try to sneak your way to base, depends on what game you are playing.

Well what we do in life depends on whether or not we know and love Jesus. Do you remember the story of Jesus and the woman at the well? He asks her for a drink of water and then he tells her if she asked him, he could give her living water, that is, the Spirit of God. Well at first she talks to him as if he were just an ordinary human. But later she comes to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior. And that changes everything. Once she knows that Jesus is the Savior, she goes back to her village and tells everyone she can about Jesus. Knowing Jesus changed her whole life. So how does knowing and loving Jesus change your life? [End]

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Last Sunday Representative Steve King from Iowa praised the nationalist Dutch politician Geert Wilders. He tweeted that Wilders understands that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”[1] King has long been a strong opponent of immigration, particularly immigration of people who are not from Western Europe. King has argued that American and Western European civilization as a whole is being diluted and harmed by the influx of non-Europeans. Instead of immigration King said that to rebuild our civilization, “You've got to keep your birth rate up, and you need to teach your children your values."[2]

King represents one of the political narratives that is becoming more and more popular in the United States. According to this narrative, America is declining culturally, economically, and socially because the core, European population is losing ground to all the minorities from Blacks and Hispanics, to Asians and Africans. Donald Trump’s popularity and success is due in part to his anti-immigration promises. Many believe he is standing up for and defending the core, white, European population of America. According to this political and social narrative, white Americans and Europeans must keep themselves pure in order to further the progress of Western civilization.

The Samaritan woman that Jesus meets at Jacob’s well lives according to a similar narrative, but on the other side. When Jesus asks her for a drink of water, she is shocked and responds, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” The author explains, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” (John 4:9).

The Jewish people disdained the Samaritans and considered them worse than the Gentiles.  The Samaritans traced their roots back to the days of Israel’s exile in Babylon. While most of the Israelites were carted off to Babylon, some, probably the poorest of the poor, were left behind. The Babylonians then imported people from other lands to populate the land of Israel. These peoples intermarried and many of them started worshipping God at Mount Gerizim which is north of Jerusalem. The Jews therefore considered the Samaritans as worse than Gentiles because they were a corruption of the Jewish race and religion, they corrupted the worship of God. According to the Jewish narrative at the time, it was one thing to be a pagan and not worship the true God; it was even worse to corrupt the worship of the true God.

The Samaritan woman also live in a second story that told her that she was what some might say crassly, damaged goods. We find out later in the story that this woman is not only divorced, but she has been divorced five times and that now she is living with a man who is not her husband. Now, many jump to the conclusion that she is a loose woman and that she is in this situation because she is immoral. It could, however, be that she has been used and abused and then tossed aside by one husband after another. The author doesn’t say anything about why she is in the position she is in.

What we do know is that this was a patriarchal society in which a woman’s social and economic standing was tied to her husband. A woman in that society became very vulnerable if her husband divorced her, she not only loses a husband, but also a means of living. Moreover, she becomes less desirable to other men as a potential wife. Whatever the reasons for her divorces, she is probably living with this man not out of choice, but simply because that is the only option open to her. Within the patriarchal narrative of her society in which men were seen as economically, politically, socially, and morally superior to women, she was on about the lowest rung of society.

I have mentioned several times over the past couple of weeks that the Christian worship service invites us to enter into God’s story. With Abraham, we are called to leave our story, our country, our tribe, our gods, our father’s household, and follow where God will lead us. In the service of confession we are invited to enter into the story of Christ Jesus. We are invited to join our old selves, our false selves, our sinful selves to Christ on the cross. By confessing our sins we nail them to the cross with Christ. In the assurance of pardon we hear the grace of God that brings us new life, resurrects us with Christ and leads us to a life lived in gratitude and service to God with Christ and in Christ. In the service of the word we are invited to enter more fully into the story of God’s relationship with his people and the world.

But what does it mean to enter into God’s story? As I suggested in the children’s sermon, it is sort of like playing one game or another. Different games call for different ways of behaving. Different stories call for different ways of living, no, more than that, they call for different ways of being.  When Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well, she is living within the Jewish story that says she is, and within the Patriarchal story that tells her that she is worthless. Jesus invites her into another story.

So Jesus meets this woman at the well and her for a drink of water. She replies within the narrative that she is unclean, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman.” But Jesus offers to give her a drink of a different kind of water. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” Jesus ignores the fact that she is a Samaritan and he a Jew, and offers to serve her with living water. He is living in a different narrative.

But, she points out, “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. … Are you greater than our father Jacob?”  Jesus doubles down and offers to perform a miracle for her. He says, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

After addressing the Jewish narrative, Jesus turns to the Patriarchal narrative. When she asks for this living water, he tells her to go and get her husband and come back. He then reveals to her that he knows her whole story. He knows that she does not have a husband, but is living with a man, and that she has been divorced five times, but still he offers to serve her with living water.

Amazed the woman recognizes Jesus as a prophet so she brings up the Jewish narrative again. She asks about whether or not it is OK for the Samaritans to worship at Mount Gerizim. “A time is coming,” he says, “when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.”I know that the Messiah is coming,” she says. “I am he,” Jesus responds. She believes him and so enters his narrative.She runs back to town and tells everyone she can about Jesus. She becomes the first non-Jewish and the first female evangelist for Jesus.

By offering to give her a drink of living water, Jesus invites her to enter into his narrative.  He invites her to leave the Jewish narrative that she is unclean as a Samaritan, and to leave the Patriarchal narrative that she is worthless as a woman who has been divorced five times. In Jesus’ narrative she becomes someone who is given living water that becomes a well in her springing up to eternal life. She becomes a fount of living water as she calls her friends and neighbors to come and see this Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior of the world.

I believe, however, that there is more going on in this story. This story closely resembles three other stories told in Genesis and Exodus. In each story (with some variation) a man meets a woman at a well. One of them offers to give the other a drink and performs a heroic or miraculous feat. And then the woman becomes the man’s wife. Isaak, Jacob and Moses all find their wives through such a story.

So why is the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well cast in such a way as to resemble those stories of betrothal? One of the main images used to describe the relationship between God and Israel, and Jesus and his church is that of marriage. In the book of Revelation, John of Patmos sees a vision of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, the purified people of God, coming down out of heaven to earth “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” And then were read, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne [of God] saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with humankind, and he will live with them.” (21:2-3) God and humanity will in a sense be married.

Jesus takes this Samaritan woman, this woman disdained by his own people, looked upon as worthless by men, and makes her his bride, his beloved. He makes her the church. And while the disciples go into town just to buy bread, the woman goes into town where she becomes a spring of living water welling up to eternal life for all who will listen to her. And while she is doing so, Jesus tells his disciples, “Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for the harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.” (John 4:35-36)

So where are you in this story? Do you find yourself living in a narrative in which one ethnic group claims superiority over another and takes actions to keep itself pure? If so, which side of that narrative are you on? Are you among the pure or among the unclean? Or are you living in a Patriarchal narrative in which women are worth less than men, say maybe only 80% of what a man is worth? If so, which side of that narrative are you on? Are you living in a narrative in which you are told over and over again that you are not welcome or valued? Can you hear Jesus offering you a drink of living water? Are you accepting Jesus’ invitation and drinking of his living water? Do you know that you are Jesus’ beloved, that Jesus loves you regardless of what you have done in the past and regardless of what other people say or think about you? Are you becoming a spring of living water welling up to eternal life? Do you see that the fields are ripe for the harvest and are you willing to get to work?

O God, the fountain of life,

to a humanity parched with thirst

you offer the living water of grace

which springs up from the rock, our Savior Jesus Christ.

Grant your people the gift of your Spirit,

that we may learn to profess our faith with courage

and announce with joy the wonder of your love.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.


[1] Kevin Freking, “Iowa Congressman Criticized for Racially Charged Comments,” Washington Post, March 13, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/congress/us-congressman-supports-anti-immigration-dutch-politician/2017/03/13/54748972-07be-11e7-bd19-fd3afa0f7e2a_story.html.

[2] Theodore Schleifer CNN, “King Doubles down on Controversial ‘Babies’ Tweet,” CNN, accessed March 18, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/13/politics/steve-king-babies-tweet-cnntv/index.html.

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March 12, 2017 Called by God
(Genesis 12:1-4a, John 3:1-17) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Do you all remember Stanley and Stephanie? Well Stanley and Stephanie have a friend named Maria. One day Maria gave them each an invitation to a party. “What’s this?” Stephanie asked. “It’s an invitation to my party,” Maria responded. “But we came to your birthday party last summer,” said Stanley. “Oh, this isn’t a birthday party, it’s an adoption day party. Didn’t you know I was adopted?” Maria asked. “You mean your mom and dad are not your real mom and dad?” asked Stephanie. “Yes, they are my real mom and dad, but I also have a mom and dad who gave birth to me. Every year we celebrate the day my mom and dad adopted me. Will you come?”

Do you know anyone who was adopted? That is a special thing isn’t it. That is when someone decides to take a boy or a girl into their home and to treat them as if they were their very own son or daughter. You see when a mom and dad have a baby of their own, they don’t have much choice but to take care of that baby. But when a mom and dad choose to adopt a boy or girl, they make a special choice to welcome a boy or girl into their home and to raise them like their own daughter or son.

Are any of you adopted? Your moms and dads are your birth mom’s and dad’s aren’t they. But did you know that even though you live with your birth mom’s and dad’s you are also adopted? You all have a Father who adopted you. Does anyone know who that Father is? No, it’s not Jesus, but Jesus’ Father. Our Father in heaven.

Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born from above.”’ We all had a physical birth, but when God adopts us, he also gives us a spiritual birth. The Apostle John writes, “to those who believed in Jesus, God gave the right to become children of God.” And that is what we are, children of God because God made a special choice to adopt us as his children. He gave us the Spirt so we could believe in Jesus. [end]
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I have often noted before that the chapter and verse numbers in our Bible are not original, but were added many years later.  But have you ever noticed the natural chapter markers in the book of Genesis? If you have your Bibles open to chapter 12, take a look at 11:27, “This is the account of Terah.” Now look at 11:10, “This is the account of Shem.”  And 10:1, “This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth.”  Now page through the next chapters which begin with “This is the account of Terah.” We pass through chapters 12 all the way to 25:12, “This is the account of Abraham’s son, Ishmael,” and 25:19, “This is the account of Abraham’s son Isaac.” Now page through the account of Isaac going all the way to chapter 36, “this is the account of Esau,” and then 37, “This is the account of Jacob.” Now read the next verse, “Joseph was a young man of seventeen…”

Does anyone notice anything funny about these accounts?  Who do we read about in the account of Terah? Abraham. Who do we mainly read about in the account of Isaak? Jacob. Who do we read about in the account of Jacob? Joseph and his brothers. We read about their sons. Sometimes, like in chapters 10 and 11, the account of someone is just a list of descendants. Having children, you see, meant the world to people in Abraham’s day. It meant that you had a story, a legacy, a name.

In looking at this morning’s text, then, we shouldn’t skip over the preceding verses: 11:27

Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot.  While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth.  Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milkah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milkah and Iskah.  Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.

The story, the account of Terah comes to a screeching halt. Sarai is barren. There is no hope for a legacy through Abram. Terah’s name will not be remembered by following generations.

But then God visits Abram.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (12:1-3)

God promises to give Abram a story, an “account” for he promises to make him the father of not just a son or two, but a great nation. “I will bless you; I will make your name great.” But in order to be a part of that story, Abram must leave the story he has been a part of. He must leave his country. He must leave his people. He must become a refugee, if you will.  He must leave his father’s household. Now if Abram is to leave his father’s household, whose household will he become a part of?

The call of Abram is an adoption story. Later in chapter 17 God makes a covenant with Abram. He says to him:

You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. … I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you (4-7).

In the call of Abram, God adopts Abram and gives him a new name, Abraham. He becomes his God, his heavenly Father, and so, following the logic of Genesis, God’s account, God’s story is about his adopted son, Abraham. But it is still God’s story. It is still God’s account. It is God who will bless Abraham. It is God who will make him into a great nation. And it is God who will bless all the peoples on earth through Abraham. God will establish his legacy, his name on earth through Abraham.

This morning we are focusing on the first portion of our worship service, the Gathering. We begin worship with a call to worship. Each week we are reminded that we, like Abraham, are called by God. We are called to leave our own stories and enter into God’s story. When God calls us he gives us a new family, a new identity, and a new purpose. In general, that purpose is the same as that given to Abraham: we are to be God’s people, God’s children through whom he blesses all the peoples of the earth. God is writing his story through us. He is establishing his legacy, his reputation, his name through us. Are we up to this calling?

Perhaps some of us receive this call when we are in a situation like Abram. Perhaps our story has run itself into the ground. “Sarai was barren; she had no children.” Maybe we have tried to live up to this world’s definition of success. We have pursued a high paying job. We have found a career that gives us a certain level of prestige. We have bought a nice house and filled it with new furniture. But then we find we are never satisfied. We always want more. There is always more money to earn, more things to buy, a more prestigious position. We have filled our lives with things and with important work, but yet it remains somehow empty and unfulfilling. But then we hear God’s call to leave this behind and to find our meaning and purpose in his story.

Or maybe our story is a less pleasant one. Maybe our story has run into the ground because we have become addicted to alcohol. Or our marriage has ended in ruins. Or we have broken our relationships with our family and burned our bridges with our friends. Or maybe we have just lived our lives solely for ourselves and we find ourselves wondering what the point of it all is. Maybe we have finally come to the end of our own story and we are ready to hear God’s call, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” God says, “Leave behind all those things in this world that you stake your claim on and that you put your trust in and trust in me. I will bless you and you will be a blessing.”

Maybe you have answered God’s call a long time ago, but every week you need to hear it again. Maybe you just need to hear the echoes of Psalm 121 in the call to Worship, “I lift my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” The psalmist looks up to the hills where all the pagans worship their gods, but he proclaims his trust in the one true God, the Maker of heaven and earth. All week long we are surrounded by the idols of our age – money, sex, power, prestige, leisure. We are pulled to worship them because those are the things that everyone around us looks up to. And so we need to be called to turn away from the gods that are worshipped in the mall and in the office buildings and on campus. We need to put our trust once more in the one and only God, the maker of heaven and earth.

Or maybe your story is more like Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes to see Jesus under the dark of night. He is a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling counsel, a mix of high priests, religious leaders and other powerful figures within Jewish society. He is also a Pharisee, a group of highly pious and devout religious leaders who see themselves as the true religious leaders of the people.  He and his Pharisee cronies have got things figured out. They are among the righteous who God looks upon with favor because they serve God with such devotion and follow his laws so meticulously. He is well positioned in society. He is influential. And so he comes to Jesus not to learn from Jesus, but to learn about Jesus.

Rabbi,” he says, “we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”(John 3:2) The Pharisees see that something is happening with Jesus, but Jesus isn’t one of them, so they are not quite sure. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Nicodemus thinks he has got the kingdom of God in his sights, but Jesus tells him otherwise. Nicodemus, however, doesn’t understand. “How can a man be born when he is old?”

Nicodemus is confused because the word “again,” can also mean “from above.” He asks how one can be born again, but Jesus responds by saying that to enter the kingdom one must be born from above. It is not enough to have all your religious ducks in a row. It is not enough to follow all the rules and to show utter devotion to God by behaving in certain ways and avoiding certain people. One must receive a certain spirit from the Spirit of God. One must become dependent on God and his Spirit rather than on one’s self.

Maybe your story is not so much like Abraham’s in that it has come to a crashing halt, but it is more like Nicodemus’. You have things all together. You are in a good position in life. You do all the right things, behave in all the right ways. You are respected by others, even a leader in the church. Maybe you need to hear God calling you away from all those things you trust in and from trusting in yourself. Maybe you need to be reminded that we live and breathe because the Spirit gives us breath and that we live in God and believe in Christ because the Spirit gives us faith and new life.

Each week we begin our worship service with silence because silence is the appropriate way to enter into God’s presence. In silence we ready ourselves to receive God’s call and to be directed by God’s Spirit. In silence we say to God, “Here I am. Your servant.”  Listen once again to our prayer of invocation in which we ask God to cleanse us and move us by his Spirit to worship him this morning and to serve him faithfully in the coming week, and let us respond with a few moments of silence.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known,

and from you no secrets are hid.

Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,

that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name,

through Christ, our Lord. Amen. [Silence]

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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March 5, 2017 Eyes Wide Open
(Genesis 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I would like to tell you a story about two friends, Stanley and Stephanie. [Shows a “Flat Stanley” paper doll] Now Stanley and Stephanie did everything together. They went to the same church and the same school. They even took piano lessons from the same piano teacher. Well one day they had a piano recital. Stephanie played first and she played her piece perfectly. But when Stanley’s turn came, he started playing, but his fingers got all jumbled. He stopped and started over, but again he made mistakes. Finally, on the third try he got past the first part and was able to play the rest of the piece with only a few mistakes.

Stanley tried to hurry out after the recital, but Stephanie stopped him. “Hey, good job” she said, “You did really well. After you got past that first part, you did great!”  “Oh, so you think you are so perfect,” he said to her. “Well you played your piece way too loud and way too fast. I learned that piece last month, but I thought it was too easy for me, so I chose a harder piece.” Stanley turned and ran out before he could see the tears streaming down Stephanie’s cheeks.

All the rest of that day, Stanley felt horrible. He felt ugly inside. [Puts a sad/ugly face on Stanley] He knew he had been very mean and unfair. He had lied to Stephanie. He couldn’t play the piece she played. And she didn’t play it too fast or too loud. He had said those things to try to make himself feel better after those mistakes he made, but now he felt worse and he knew that he had made her feel really bad too.

Over the next couple of days Stanley tried not to think about what he had done. He tried to act like nothing was wrong. He felt mean and he thought he even looked mean. [Puts on a “fake face”] So he sort of put on a fake happy face to try to hide how he really felt, and what he was truly like. Stanley ended up wearing his fake face for several days. He wore it at church and at school because he didn’t want anyone to know how mean he had been and how mean he felt.

A couple of days later Stanley’s parents asked him at dinner why they hadn’t seen Stephanie around. He put on his best fake happy face and said, “I don’t know. Nothing’s wrong.” “Did something happen at the recital?” his mom asked. “We noticed you left so quickly and that she was crying.” “Well,” Stanley said. And then he took off his fake happy face. He felt ashamed. He felt bad. But he also felt relieved. He didn’t have to pretend anymore. And he told his parents the whole story.

After he finished, Stanley’s parents assured him that Stephanie would still be his friend and that she probably just wanted him to apologize and say he was sorry. “But there is someone else you need to apologize to,” Stanley’s mom said. “When you hurt Stephanie you hurt God too because Stephanie is God’s child, just like you are God’s child.” Stanley’s mom and dad helped Stanley pray to God, to confess that he had been mean to Stephanie and that he had lied to her, and to ask for God’s forgiveness. As Stanley prayed, he felt like someone lifted his ugly, mean face off. He felt like he was himself again. After dinner, Stanley went to see Stephanie. He took off his fake face. He told her he was sorry he had been so mean to her. And she forgave him too. So Stanley felt like his true self once again. [End]
* * * * * * * * * *

To some who do not know the grace of God and who have not experienced God’s love in Christ Jesus, the Christian practice of the confession of sin may appear masochistic, a practice of self-loathing. But to the one who has tasted the grace of God, to the one who knows that God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting, the confession of sin is not an abasement of the self, but a purgation of the false self. It is a release of what keeps us from being who we truly are and were truly meant to be.

Sin, you see, begins in a cauldron of falsehoods and fears. In the Garden of Eden the serpent entices Eve to sin by entrapping her in a web of lies. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’” What an unreasonable God this must be. He can’t truly mean you will die from eating something that is good for you, for when you eat of the fruit, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:1,4-5)

Although made in the image of God, although given charge over the care of God’s creation, Adam and Eve desired more. Did they fear that God was not being honest with them? Did they fear that God did not have their best interest in mind? Whatever the case, Adam and Eve ate the fruit out of the desire to be like God, to become gods unto themselves. They desired not only to know good and evil, but to determine good and evil for themselves. They strove, in other words, to be something other than what they were created to be. And this they became, for when they ate, they realized that they had disobeyed God. They realized that they had dishonored their loving creator and they had dishonored themselves. And so their eyes were opened. They saw they were naked. They were filled with shame for they had become false.

Adam and Eve’s story is our story. We have all strived to be our own gods. We have all sought to replace God with ourselves or with gods of human making, gods that we control and respond to our demands. And so we have lost our connection to the source of our true being for we have broken our relationship with our creator. Cut off from our creator we are then left to face this world through our own devices. But knowing our own weaknesses we act either out of fear or out of false bravado. We act out of pride and arrogance lest others see that we are not really as good or smart or strong as we portray ourselves to be. We act out of lust and greed to compensate for our own insecurities. Instead of trusting others and being vulnerable with them so that we might receive from them, we take what is not freely offered. We harbor anger and resentment because we fear that we will not get what is our due. Instead of being honest and forthright, we manipulate the truth to our advantage.

I suspect that, like myself, we all feel a bit ambiguous about our own sin. On the one hand we enjoy our sin. We like the sense of control it gives us. It makes us feel superior over others. We may even enjoy getting away with our sin and pulling the wool over other people’s eyes. But on the other hand, we are ashamed of our sin. We know it does not represent who we truly want to be. Our eyes, like Adam and Eve, are wide open. We try to fool others, and sometimes we fool ourselves, but we know what we have dishonored God and brought shame upon ourselves. We sew fig leaves together, but they don’t hide all that much. We put on a fake face, but we know that deep down we are naked and ashamed.

The confession of sin is the gift God gives us to take off our fake faces, to put aside our false selves, and to live as the true people he made us to be. It hurts to take off the masks we wear, for sometimes those masks have come to be so much a part of how we behave. It is shameful to take off the fig leaves and allow God or others to see all that we have been hiding from them. But after the shame and pain comes the relief of grace and forgiveness. After we confess our sins, we hear the assurance of pardon, that, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)

Jesus, you see, entered our story and relived the temptation of Adam and Eve, not in a garden, but in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). When he was tired and hungry, the devil tempted him to rely on his own resources instead of upon God, but Jesus remained a faithful Son and replied, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Even though he knew that he would be rejected by the religious leaders, and the people, and even his own disciples, Jesus turned aside the devil’s temptation to become spectacular and held in awe by everyone. He would not jump off the top of the temple and force God to miraculously save him. He did not put God, his Father, to the test. Knowing that his throne lay through the path of the cross, Jesus rejected the devil’s temptation to take a shortcut to power. He remained faithful serving God and God alone. 

Through the confession of sin, we leave the story of Adam and Eve and enter into the story of Jesus. For he came and was baptized by John in the Jordan in order to identify with us in our sinfulness and in our shame. Although he overcame the devil’s temptations, he took upon himself our sins and shame and died to the power of sin on the cross. But the love and grace of God raised him from the dead. Just so, in the service of confession, and in our own individual practices of confession, we die to our false selves, what Paul calls our old selves, our sinful nature, and we are raised up to our new, true, resurrected selves in Christ Jesus.

Friends, each week we are given the opportunity to enter more deeply into Christ through the service of confession. We can recite the words of the prayer with no thought or emotion and go through the motions of receiving and extending the peace of the Lord to one another. We can let them wash over us like water off a duck’s back. Or we can come each week with submissive intention. We can take the opportunity to review our week and notice how we have sinned and against whom we have sinned. We can seek and receive God’s forgiveness and resolve to seek the forgiveness of those we have sinned against. In doing so, the Holy Spirit will work through the words of scripture, “[Jesus] himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed”  (1 Peter 2:24). If you allow it, the Spirit will work through these words to shape your heart, to free you from your false self, to transform you into your true self, the image of Christ, and to bring us all in to true communion with God and with each other. In the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

O God, in creation you fashion us in your image,

in Christ you reveal to us your love,

through the Holy Spirit you call us and welcome us

            into the fellowship of believers;

we bow in gratitude before you.

We constantly distort your image, but still you restore it.

We daily betray your love, but still you extend it.

We often break our fellowship, but still you bless it.

Throughout this season of Lent, O Lord, be near unto us

that your image in us might be restored and revealed,

your love for us and for all revealed,

and our fellowship in Christ renewed. Amen.

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February 26, 2017 The Son of Man
(Matthew 17:1-9) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] This morning I have some crackers. Actually I have 15 crackers. Now if I gave each of you one, would I still have 20 crackers? No, now I have only …. crackers. So if I have something and I give some of it away, then I have less, right?

Suppose you do something really well and your friend sees you do it, something like playing a song on the piano in front of the whole church, or maybe making a basket while playing basketball, or winning a race. What might your friend do to help you celebrate? She might cheer. She might yell. She might give you a high five. Now suppose I give each of you a high five. Now do I have fewer high five’s to give out? I mean I just gave away … high fives. Do you think I have enough high fives to give one to everyone here? Yes, I do.

So now I have a question for you: What is love like? Is love like having a bunch of crackers or is love like a high five? If we love someone, does that mean we have less love to give someone else? Sometimes we might think that if someone like our mother or father loves another boy or girl, like maybe our sister or brother, then they won’t have enough love leftover for us. Or maybe you have a friend who makes a new friend. You might think your friend doesn’t have enough friendship to share with you anymore. And sometimes we think might think that God’s love is like that. If God loves someone else, maybe he doesn’t have enough love for me. And when we think that about God, we might try to keep God’s love all to ourselves. But God’s love can never run out, can it? He loves each and everyone one of us, and he still has enough love for the whole world.

This morning we are celebrating the truth that God loves people from every nation and country. So let’s take see how many countries we represent here at Hessel Park. What countries do you or your parents come from? … Any others in the congregation? So we know that God can love not only people who live in the United States, but also Taiwan, and Japan, and India, and Korea, and every nation in the world because his love can never run out. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

Some time ago I was studying the Bible with someone who was just beginning to learn about Christianity. We were discussing the Gospel of Mark when he noticed that some of the words in my Bible were printed in red. He asked why this was so. I explained that those were Jesus’ words, but that I didn’t really like this about my Bible since it made it seems as if Jesus words were the only important words in the Bible, or that those words are the words that Jesus actually said.

Jesus, however, did not ever say to his disciples, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised” (Matthew 17: 5). It may seem an extremely obvious point, but Jesus never said that because he never spoke in modern English. And he probably didn’t say most of the recorded words we do have of his words because he most likely spoke in Aramaic and not Greek. There are probably only a few words in the Gospels that Jesus actually said. In Mark 14:36 he says, “Abba” which is Aramaic for Father. And on the cross he cries out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani,” which is Hebrew for “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

This may seem a bit academic, but it does make you wonder, why didn’t Jesus write anything down for us? Why didn’t Jesus just clearly spell out in his very own words what he wanted to teach everyone so that there could be no dispute about what he actually did say? Why did God do things the way things are so that we have 4 different stories about Jesus that sometimes contradict each other on some of the details about what Jesus did and said? Why did God allow the church to wait 30 years or more before any of the gospels were finally written? I think our text gives us some idea of why Jesus never wrote anything himself and why what we have about Jesus is the testimony of those who saw and heard him, passed down for years and years, until finally written down by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Our text this morning occurs just after Jesus has finally admitted to his disciples plainly and clearly that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the one anointed by God to redeem his people. He has also just begun explaining to them, very plainly and clearly, that he must now go to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed into the hands of the religious leaders and then the Romans, that they will put him to death, but that after three days he will rise again. But even said so plainly, the disciples don’t get it. Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him for saying such nonsense.

About a week later Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples with him up a mountain. There he is transfigured before them – his clothes become a dazzling white and his face shines like the sun. Moses and Elijah appear with him and talk with him. Matthew doesn’t tell us about what, but Luke reports that they speak of Jesus’ exodus. That is, they speak of how he is about to lead God’s people out of slavery through his death in Jerusalem.

Again, Peter doesn’t grasp what is going on and blurts out, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Peter sees Jesus with Moses and Elijah, the two most important figures for the Jewish people – the giver of the Law, the one who led the people out of Egypt and to the promised land, and the first of all the major prophets, the one whose return would mark the coming of the Messiah. Peter sees this and says, “This is good.” His impulse is to somehow grab on to this amazingly good thing. He wants to hold on to Moses and Elijah and to stay with them and with Jesus up on this mountain. Here Peter and Jesus and James and John have the core of the Jewish tradition right there with them. If they could just hold on to it, maybe then …

I think, if Jesus had written down his own teachings, we would have a desire to do the same thing as Peter. If we had Jesus very own words, there would be no doubt about what he said, or what he meant, would there? We would have the undisputed authority of the very words of God? We therefore wouldn’t have all these divisions in the church and all these different denominations. We would all be one church, with one set of indisputable teachings. We could all just hang on to the very words of God spoken through Jesus.

Or would we? We are already tempted to believe that our interpretation of the Bible and what Jesus did and why is the one correct interpretation. We are already tempted if not guilty of believing that we understand and follow and worship God more faithfully than all the other Christian denominations.

But would things be that much different if we had the actual words of Jesus verbatim? How would we read those words? Would we all learn to read 1st century Aramaic? We would have to.  But then how would we be sure that we completely understood those words? Would we also all become scholars of 1st century Judaism and of the surrounding cultures so that we could truly understand what Jesus said from within his own historical, cultural and political setting?

If we had the actual words of Jesus, we would be tempted even more than we are now to set Christianity in stone, to make it a religion with set beliefs and practices and rules and laws that must be followed exactly with no deviation. Moreover, such a religion would move us toward a tendency to dominate others. If we have God and Jesus all figured out, with no mystery, if we know exactly what to believe and how to behave, then we would more easily assume the right, no, the obligation to force others to believe and behave as we do.

But we do not have the exact words of Jesus. We have the words of Jesus as passed down for decades, translated into another language, and then written down within 4 similar yet different stories, each written to different audiences and with slightly different themes and agendas. You see, what we have instead of Jesus words written down in stone, are the words of Jesus made alive, in a sense.

The truth is that the desire to have Jesus’ actual words so that we would not need to worry about interpreting them is an unachievable desire from the very beginning. I am occasionally amazed by what some people tell me they heard from my sermons. Sometimes they draw something from my sermon that I don’t think I actually said, but it is something that is true or beautiful, and might be a logical inference from my sermon, and I think, “Hmm, maybe the Spirit is at work there doing something with my words that I didn’t even think about or intend.” While at other times someone will say they heard me say something and I think, “Hmm, I have definitely need to be more careful and more clear because that is not at all what I intended to say.”

The truth is that we can’t get away from interpretation. Some of you sitting here, listen to me preach and you have to translate what I am saying into your primary language. That is a process of interpretation and translation. But even if you are a native English speaker, you are still interpreting what I am saying. There is no direct, immediate communication between you and I. We have to use this culturally, historically, and even personally bound thing we call language. And your understanding of this language is different than mine because your very life experiences mean that you understand various words in different ways than I do.

It has always been the scandal of Christianity that we proclaim that God became a human in Jesus. How could God be limited to one human being, to one particular time and place, to one particular language and culture, to one particular religion? The temptation is to take this fact that God became human in Jesus and hold on to it like Peter on top of the mountain, as if we have some sort of corner on God over against everyone else. The temptation is to say, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, we will build a shelter for you where we can keep you.”

But as Peter was still speaking, ‘a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”’  The voice from heaven recalls for us Jesus’ baptism where the Holy Spirit anointed Jesus. The voice confirms Jesus’ mission as the Messiah, the King of Israel for the voice alludes to several passages of scripture. First the voice alludes to Psalm 2 which depicts the enthronement of Israel’s King. In the Psalm the King remembers, ‘[The Lord] said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.” The voice confirms that Jesus is the Suffering Servant from s Isaiah 42, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.”

God’s voice clarifies what is happening in the transfiguration of Jesus. The main way Jesus refers to himself in the gospels is that he calls himself “The Son of Man.” At the end of chapter 16 he tells his disciples, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” He alludes to the book of Daniel where Daniel sees a vision of one like a Son of Man who approaches the throne of God and “was given authority, glory and sovereign power, all peoples and nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will never pass away” (7:13-14). Later in Daniel this Son of Man is dresses in all white and shines like lightning.

God’s voice and Jesus’ transfiguration counter Peter’s desire to hold on to Jesus – and Moses and Elijah – by reminding us that God’s Messiah, God’s Suffering Servant were meant to be not only for Israel, but for the nations. The Messiah and the Suffering Servant, like the Son of Man in Daniel, fulfill Israel’s vocation to be a nation chosen for the sake of all the nations. God’s choosing of Israel was never meant to be so that Israel could keep God all to herself. Rather, God chose Israel to demonstrate that because he could love this nation, he could love all nations. Because he could love this people, he could love all peoples.

And that brings us back to the scandal of the incarnation. We find it scandalous that God would choose to become human in one person, and so become bound to one gender, one culture, one language, one time and place. But instead of limiting God to one human way of being, because God became human, it means God’s words, his desires, his commands, his love can be translated into any human way of being.

Jesus calls himself “The Son of Man.” In the Hebrew “Son of Man” is “Son of Adam.” In the Old Testament “Son of Adam” most often simply means “human being.” Jesus’ most common way to refer to himself is as “The Human Being.” I think he does this to point us to Daniels vision of the Son of Man who is given authority over all peoples and nations, but also to teach us that he was a human being just like every other human being. He was bound to a particular time and place and culture and language not to elevate 1st Century Jewish culture and language, but to elevate any and all human cultures and languages.

Like any human being Jesus’ words and actions had to be interpreted by those around him. They were capable of being misinterpreted, as the Disciples demonstrate time and time again, but they were also capable of not only being interpreted and understood by others, but of being translated, first into the Greek language and culture, and then into Latin and Russian and Coptic and later German and Spanish and Italian and English and Mandarin.

This, my friends, should keep us humble. We are not able to pin Jesus down with a precision that allows us to think that we have God all figured out, that we have all the answers, and that we can therefore dictate to others what God’s will is. Instead we all, people from every tribe and nation and language, must interpret what God said and did in and through Jesus Christ. We all need each other because our experiences of God and our understanding of God will be somewhat different. None of us can completely comprehend God or Jesus so we must all learn from one another. No one has a corner on God.

And so when we sing songs from various countries and traditions around the world, and when we pray and sing in different languages, we do so not to be trendy because multiculturalism is the latest fad. We do so to remind us that Western Europeans do not have a corner on God. Our way of worshipping, our liturgies, and prayers and hymns are not the way to worship God. They are but one way. We draw from other traditions to remind ourselves that Jesus is the Son of Man, the Human Being who has come to be King of all nations. And we draw from other traditions to celebrate that He has come to redeem not only people from all nations, but the cultures of the nations as well. Let us therefore listen to Jesus in all humility and that means listening with love and respect to all our brothers and sisters from all the nations. peoples. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Almighty God, you sent your son into the world

not to condemn the world,

but to save the world through him.

Although our world has many languages,

your gospel proclaims your love to all nations

through that one Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

Make us messengers of the good news

so that, through the power of your Spirit,

all the world may unite in one song of praise;

through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever.

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February 19, 2017 All the way to the end.
(Matthew 5:38-48) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Who can tell me what this is? (a hammer) What do you use it for? And who can tell me what this is? (A serving spoon) What do you use it for? So we have hammers to pound things and spoons to scoop food out of bowls, right. It would be kind of silly to try to scoop food out of a bowl with a hammer, wouldn’t it? And it would be pretty silly to use this spoon like a hammer. But can anyone see anything wrong with this serving spoon? The handle is broken. Well how do you suppose that handle broke?

One day I was in the kitchen and we were planning to make chicken later in the day. We had frozen a bunch of chicken pieces together and I knew that they would take forever to thaw unless I separated them. So I took a butter knife and tried to insert it between the pieces of chicken, but it wouldn’t go in very far. So I looked around for something to tap the knife with and I grabbed this spoon. So instead of going out to the garage and grabbing my hammer, I used the spoon like a hammer. That was not one of my brightest ideas, was it? Instead of separating the chicken pieces, I broke our serving spoon. I broke our serving spoon because I used it in a way you aren’t supposed to. I used it for something it wasn’t made for. So what are we made for?

Jesus once told his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you.” He then said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now we think of being perfect as not having any flaws, that something is as good as it could possibly be. But to be perfect also means to be fully what you were made to be. A hammer is perfect when I use it to pound in a nail. A spoon is perfect when I use it to serve up some chicken and rice. We are perfect, Jesus says, when we not only love our neighbors and when we love those who are nice to us, but when we love those who are mean to us.

You know why? Because we were made in God’s image. We were made to be like God, and God loves even those who don’t love him back. We were made to love every one, those who are nice to us and those who are mean to us. Last week we talked about how Jesus wants us to obey God not only on the outside, but all the way down into our hearts. Today Jesus tells us that he wants us to obey God all the way on the outside too, that loving others is our purpose. It is what we were made for. But remember, we can do this, we can love others because Jesus first loved us. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

Be perfect,” Jesus says, “As your heavenly Father is perfect.” Is Jesus just setting us up to fail? Is he calling us to a standard that is beyond our reach? Why pursue this thing called Christianity if it is just an impossibility? How can anyone be perfect?

Last week I argued that Jesus revealed the deeper intentions of God’s law. In telling us not to kill others God desires not only that we not physically kill others, but to shape our hearts so that we won’t hate others, or be unjustly angry with them, or treat them with disdain. In our marriages he desires that we remain faithful to one another not only by not committing adultery but also that our hearts remain faithful to our spouses and to the marriage itself.  He forbade us from bearing false witness against a neighbor, but he truly desires that we follow the logic of this command to its end, that we don’t lie at all. His desire is that we not only tell the truth but that we tell the truth so consistently that we don’t have to back up our statements with an oath. Jesus’ intentions for us in following God’s commandments are that we not only do and don’t do certain things, but that we become certain kinds of people. The commandments were given not just to guide our behavior, but to shape our character, to form our hearts. Jesus calls us to obey the commandments all the way down to our hearts.

Let me suggest that Jesus continues to addresses two more commandments from the Ten Commandments: do not steal and do not covet.  In the eighth commandment, God forbids us from stealing from others. We are not to take what rightfully belongs to others. Jesus now looks at the flip side of this commandment. How are we to behave when someone steals from us? Our normal reaction when someone takes something from us is to take it back, or get back something of equal value. So Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”

“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” sounds rather barbaric to us.  Jesus quotes a law known as the “lex talionis,” the law of retribution which was known in many societies aside from the Hebews in the ancient Near East. The lex talionis basically stipulates that if someone injures someone else, justice requires that the perpetrator not be hurt more than the hurt he or she caused. In a society where the “lex talionis” is not followed, someone who steals a loaf of bread may have his hand cut off. Someone who injures another person, may be sought out and killed in revenge. The lex talionis may sound barbaric to us, but it is perhaps the baseline of a civil society. It puts an end to the cycle of revenge.. If you kill me because I hurt your foot, well, then my brothers and my family are going to kill you and your brother. The lex talionis says, no, if I hurt your foot, then you can only hurt my foot and that is the end of the matter. Its purpose is not to require equal retribution, but to limit retribution

But Jesus goes even further. He says, you all know the lex talionis, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, but I tell you do not resist an evil person.  “If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Assuming that most people are right handed, to slap someone on the right cheek means that you are not punching them in the face but slapping them with the back of your hand. In other words, if someone insults you and steals your honor, don’t slap them back, but turn the other cheek to them.  And if someone wants to steal your tunic by taking you to court, give them your cloak as well. And if a Roman soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile – Roman soldiers were allowed to commandeer people into such service – then go with him two miles. Jesus concludes that the command not to steal is truly fulfilled through generosity: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

He then says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” In the tenth commandment God commands us not to covet what belongs to our neighbor. In the other commandments he covers our actions – don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t tell lies. In the tenth commandment he address our desire: do not desire to own what belongs to your neighbor.

Jesus, however, takes this commandment a couple of steps further. Not only should we not desire what belongs to our neighbor, but we should desire what is best for our neighbor. We should love our neighbor. And not only should we love our neighbor, we should love our enemy. We should desire what is best for our enemy. We should, in short, be like our Heavenly Father, who, as Jesus says “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” “Be perfect,” Jesus says, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

As I mentioned in the children’s sermon, to be perfect is not necessarily to be without fault. To be perfect is to achieve your purpose, it is to achieve your end, your goal, your reason for being. And what is our reason for being? God created us in his image. To be a perfect human is to be an image of God. That, my friends, is our destiny. That is why Jesus came to save us, so that we could realize what we were made to be.

But how does that play out in our world? How are we to be like God in a broken, unjust and sinful world? Well, the perfect human image of God in this world is Jesus Christ. It is Jesus, who on the cross says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Forgive, those who have nailed me to this cross and who are mocking me. They have hated me, but I love them as you love them.”

But what does that mean for us in this world? How are we to take up our cross and follow Jesus? I have already argued a couple of weeks ago that at the opening of Jesus’ sermon, he claims that those who are truly blessed are those who are oppressed and those who stand with and for the oppressed. Because that is what God does in Jesus Christ. He stands with and for the oppressed.

But let’s look again at our text from this morning. Jesus says, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your cloak as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” Does Jesus here advocate that the poor, the oppressed, and the powerless just roll over in the face of injustice? Should the poor just put their hope in the hereafter? Absolutely not.

Let me suggest that in each instance Jesus calls us to act just as he acts when he goes to the cross. As I have said, when someone slaps you on your right cheek they are insulting you. Jesus says to turn to them the other cheek. This is not simply to roll over and take the abuse. Rather, it is to stand up to the one who has insulted you. By turning the other cheek you are saying, “If it was just for you to slap me on the right cheek, well then, punch me on the left.” This makes the injustice of the slap, the insult obvious for all to see.

Likewise, Jesus’ comments about a tunic and a cloak are about confronting injustice. It was common in Jesus’ day to put one of your possession up as collateral for a loan. If someone is suing another person for their tunic, that is their shirt, the person is suing a poor person who has put up one of the only things he owns as collateral for a loan. To sue someone for the shirt on their back, even if they have defaulted on their loan, is inhuman. It is unjust. So Jesus says, if someone does this to you, give them the very last thing you own, your cloak. Old Testament law stipulated that if a poor person put up their cloak as collateral for a loan, then you must give them their cloak back at night so that they have something to cover themselves when they sleep. A cloak, in other words, was a poor person’s only shelter. By offering the person who sues you for your tunic your cloak as well, you make the injustice of their action clear for all to see.

Finally, as I mentioned briefly before, when a Roman soldier was on the march, he was allowed to commandeer a commoner to carry his gear. But to prevent abuse, he could only make a person carry their gear for one mile. Jesus brings his sermon to the question that pervaded Jewish society every day and in every way: How do we respond to the Roman occupation? What do we do about an unjust, exploitative, not to mention pagan, empire ruling over us? Do we fight back? Do we work with them and eek out whatever independence we can? Do we flee from them and separate ourselves from them as much as possible and hope God will intervene?

Jesus says no to all these options. He says, “Do not resist the evil person.” Rather, do something that will make their injustice plain for all to see. Turn the other cheek. Give them the shirt off your back and your cloak as well. Walk a second mile. Willingly submit to a sham of a trial and be crucified for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

You see, this is exactly what Jesus does on the cross. After eating the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus takes them to the Garden of Gethsemane. Mathew writes:  ‘Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (26:39). “If this is how I am to fulfill my purpose,” Jesus prays, “Then I will follow your will. I will be perfect as you are perfect.”

After Jesus prays this three times, he returns to his disciples as Judas and the temple guard come into the garden to arrest him. One of his followers pulls out a sword and strikes the high priest, cutting off his ear. But Jesus says, “Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” He then says to the crowd, ““Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me” (26:52-55).

Jesus refuses to resist the evil person. He refuses to take up the weapons of the world. He refuses to take the path previous false Messiahs had taken and the path that everyone expects a Messiah to take. He refuses to perpetuate the cycle of violence and evil and so he goes willing with those who have come to arrest him even though he is innocent of the crime every other would be Messiah was guilty of, leading a rebellion against Rome.

The temple guards take Jesus before the ruling Jewish council made up of the high priests and other leading members of the society. They bring forth one false witness after another, but nothing sticks to Jesus. The High Priest then commands Jesus, “Tell us if you are the Christ, [the Messiah], the Son of God.” Jesus responds, “Yes, it is as you say. But I say to all of you: in the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Jesus makes an obscure reference to a prophecy in the book of Daniel. Perhaps he implies that he is not only the Christ, but also this “Son of Man” to whom God gives authority over every nation, but, although Jesus is not explicit, the High Priest takes this as sufficient for charging Jesus with blasphemy and sentences Jesus to death.

But the High Priest had to get permission from the Roman governor to put Jesus to death, so they take Jesus to Pilate. Pilate questions Jesus, but he can see that Jesus has not started a rebellion, he is no real threat to the Roman Imperial Army. Pilate finds Jesus innocent. He tries to release Jesus, but the crowds, stirred up by the high priests, call for Pilate to crucify Jesus. Pilate tries to free himself from the guilt of condemning an innocent man by washing his hands, but yet he hands Jesus over to be crucified even though he does not find Jesus guilty of any crime.

Jesus stand in silence throughout this whole ordeal to allow the injustices of Pilate, the high priests, and the Roman soldiers to speak for themselves. And so Jesus fulfills his purpose. He obeys God all the way to the end, to the fulfillment of his goal. He allows the Roman soldiers to nail his hands to the cross. He opens up his arms to take upon himself all the injustice and violence the world can heap upon him. He takes upon himself, in other words, the sin of the world. And he dies to this violence and evil. But through his resurrection the love of God, the life giving power of God, provers greater. And so as Jesus spreads his arms to take on our sin, he opens them to embrace sinful humanity in the love of God. My friends, let us obey God all the way to the end. Let us love our neighbors as ourselves. And let us love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Let us follow Jesus and be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

God of compassion, you have shown us in Christ that your love is never-ending. Enable us to love you with all our hearts, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love our enemies as Jesus loved even those who nailed him to the cross. We pray this so that our lives may bear witness to Jesus Christ who died but was raised from the dead and now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

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February 12, 2017 Surpassing the Pharisees
(Matthew 5:21-37) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I would like to ask the congregation to help us sing a couple of songs. This side, turn back to “Praise to the Lord,” (575) and this side turn back to “When we walk with the Lord” (327). Play an F. So first this side, sing just the first line. “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty the King of Creation.  And this side: just the first line. “:When we walk with the Lord in the light of his Word, what a glory he shed on our way.” That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Now let’s sing both at the same time. ... Now that sounded terrible didn’t it. In fact, it was rather ugly.

Do you ever do things because you know that they are the right thing to do, but you don’t really feel like doing them? Maybe you have to share a toy with a friend or your brother or sister, but you really don’t want to share at all. In fact maybe you share the toy with them, but deep down you are angry at them and you wish they would just go away. Well I think that happens to all of us. We can do the right thing on the outside, but inside we aren’t being very kind or loving. But when our outside doesn’t match our insides, it isn’t very pretty. In fact it makes us rather ugly. It is sort of like singing two songs at once.

Jesus once told his disciples, “You have heard that it was said …, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’” Know I don’t think you or I will have much of a problem keeping that commandment. But Jesus says more. “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” You see, Jesus cares about us all the way down into our hearts. He wants us to be the best people we can be not just on the outside, but all the way down to the inside.

Now that might seem to be very difficult. And you know what, it is? But Jesus doesn’t expect us to do this alone. He doesn’t expect us to obey him all the way down by ourselves. Jesus also says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” If we find it too hard to make our insides match our outsides, maybe we need to ask Jesus. So let’s ask Jesus:

Almighty God, you gave your laws to guide our lives. Help us to trust you Help us to trust that you gave us your commandments because you love us. And help us to obey you so that we love you with our whole hearts and minds, and so that we love our neighbors as ourselves. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

Immediately before our text, Jesus says to his disciples, “Unless your righteousness surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Unfortunately we tend to read these words as separate from the words of Jesus we read just now. In our Bibles we have chapters and verses, paragraphs and punctuation marks that were not in the original Greek, and certainly not in Jesus’ own sermon. We have one heading telling us that what we read last week is all about how Jesus came to fulfill the law and not to abolish it, and another heading telling us that not being angry or calling your brother a fool is about murder.

But Jesus moves from talking about how he has come to fulfill the commandments of God to how those commandments are actually fulfilled in his disciples. The command to not murder is not only filled by you and me not killing someone, but also by us not being unjustly angry with them, by not treating them with disdain and calling them a fool. In Jesus’ day the commandment to not commit adultery was generally only applied to women. Women fulfilled this command by remaining faithful to their husbands. But Jesus says this not only applies to women, but also to men, and not only to actions but also to how a man might desire another woman.

Notice that this whole sermon is really about how we are to fulfill the law of God.  In 7:12 he reminds us that he is still talking about the law when he says, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” He then moves into the conclusion of his sermon. So from our text this morning to 7:12, Jesus tells his disciples how they are to fulfill God’s law.

Fulfilling God’s law, however is not simply for the purpose of fulfilling God’s law. It is, as we read last week, so that we may be salt and light in the world. It is “so that [people] may see our good deeds and praise [our] Father in heaven” (5:16). It is so that we can be fertilizer for the world, enabling others and our communities to flourish with the life God desires for all his creation. It is so that we can live into the kingdom of God now proclaiming with our words and deeds the good news to the poor and the poor in spirit that the Kingdom of God belongs to such as them, and acting out the good news of the kingdom by living in solidarity with the poor and the poor in spirit.

Fulfilling the law is not just about not breaking a list of dos and don’ts, it is about living in the kingdom of God. Jesus begins his ministry announcing the good news that the kingdom of God is near. Here he basically says, “If you fulfill the law, if you live according to God’s ways, you are living in the kingdom.”

We tend to think of the kingdom of God as something in the future. If we are good and obedient today, then St. Peter will welcome us into heaven when we die. But the good news Jesus preaches is that the kingdom of God is present in him.

Economist Keith Chen once wondered how language might affect our behavior.[1] He knew that in Mandarin there are no past, present, and future tenses. One might use the same words to describe something in the future as something in the present. He designed a study to compare people who speak a “futureless language” with those who speak a “futured language” like English and many other Western languages. What he found was that those who spoke a “futureless language” were much more likely to save money than those who spoke a “futured language.” He concluded that when we speak of the future in a different way than the present, it feels more distant and so less real to us. We therefore have less incentive to invest for the future. Those who speak of the present and future in the same way don’t think of the future as so very different or remote from the present. It is more real to them and so they are more inclined to save their money.

Perhaps our thinking about the kingdom of God is similar. If we think and talk about the kingdom of God only as a future reality, if we think that it is something that we may only enter when we die or when Jesus returns, then it is less real to us. But if we recognize that the kingdom of God is a present reality, if we hear Jesus’ good news that the Kingdom of God is open to us now, then we have more incentive to begin living in the kingdom now. Jesus came calling people to repent, to turn from their ways of doing things and to begin living in God’s ways for he proclaimed that the kingdom of God was near. He invited people to begin living in the kingdom of God now. And so he continues to invite us to live in the kingdom of God now.

So what is life like in the kingdom of God? Jesus says it is about fulfilling the Law. We might think that Jesus just sort of ramps up the standards of the Ten Commandments. He looks at three of them, don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, and don’t bear false witness, and makes them even tougher. Not only shall you not kill anyone, but don’t even be angry with them or disdain them. Not only shall you not commit adultery, but you shall not even think of it nor shall you divorce your wife. Not only shall you not tell a lie against your neighbor, but you should always tell the truth without even backing it up with an oath. Doesn’t Jesus simply burden us with more rules to follow, tougher commands to obey?

 If you look at each commandment Jesus addresses, you will not notice that he is not just making the commandment more stringent. He directs our attention away from mere actions and towards the basis, or the foundation of those actions. In short he shows us that living in the kingdom is not just about following a list of rules, it is about our hearts. It is about character. Living in the kingdom is about our being more than our doing for our doing flows out of our being. Living in the kingdom is about life itself.

In Deuteronomy, Moses speaks to the nation of Israel after the years and years of wandering in the desert. They have finally come to the edge of the Promised Land, to the edge of the Kingdom, if you will. And there God sets before the Israelites a choice. “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess” (30:15-16).

Following in God’s ways, obeying his commands is the way in which we truly live. His commandments lead to life and flourishing. Going another way, following our own way leads to death and destruction.  But true life is not just a series of outward actions. As human beings we have souls and bodies. We are embodied souls and soul-filled bodies. When we enter the kingdom, if we live in the kingdom now, we live as whole selves that commit actions, but also as selves that have thoughts and desires and impulses. To live a true life requires all parts of ourselves to be in tune with God’s ways.

The other week Roxann and I met one of her friends from college and her husband for lunch. We have only seen them a couple of times since college days and only in the last year. So Roxann sat down across from her friend and I sat across from her husband. I am not sure how the subject came up but soon he and I began discussing the bible and evolution.

I did my best to convince him that it was not necessary to read Genesis 1 literally and believe in a 6 day creation. I tried to be calm and kind as I presented my arguments, but I found myself feeling very defensive. I felt judged by his position as if he believed that I wasn’t a true Christian since I didn’t take the bible as seriously as he did. Of course, I wanted to demonstrate that I did take the bible very seriously, so much so that I believe we need to understand the bible from the culture within which it was written. I tried to convince him that I was actually taking the bible more seriously than he was.

In spite of my good intentions, I found myself getting angry. I found myself becoming more and more concerned with winning the argument than in getting to know him better and in trying to understand why he believed what he believed. I found myself caring more about me and my position then I did about him. While I don’t think I outwardly treated him with contempt, in my heart I felt that he was a fool.

I thought about this later and realized how ugly I was being. On the surface I obeyed God’s laws, so to speak, but on the inside I erected an idol of my own intelligence and wit. What this incident also revealed to me was that I really do need to grow spiritually. Outwardly I may be kind and compassionate to people, but my heart isn’t always in the same place. The problem, first of all, is that sooner or later my heart will show through my actions. But second, it means that I am still not the person God created me to be. I am still not walking fully in the ways of Christ that lead to life and flourishing for myself and for others. I am not fully living into the Kingdom.

If we have responded to Jesus to come and follow him, if we are called to be salt and light in this world, if we love mercy, if we hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, if we desire to be peacemakers, then our hearts must be hearts that beat with peace, mercy, righteousness, justice and love. Our world seems to be more and more divided. If we are to be peacemakers in such a world, then we need to be able to not only talk with those who differ from us, but to love them. And that takes a heart shaped by love itself.

What then do we do? Do we just try harder to be better people? Notice that after Jesus talks about a couple more commandments, he talks about works of righteousness: giving to the poor, fasting and prayer. These are what we would call the spiritual disciplines. He tells his disciples to do them in private so that they don’t become a list of dos and don’ts that we fulfill to make us look good before God and others. No we do them in private because they serve to place us in humility before God thus opening our hearts to be filled and shaped by his Spirit.

Dallas Willard says that “One of the lies about the spiritual life is that it is hard.”[2] No, he argues, the hard thing is the other way around. The hard thing is to go our own way, to forge our own path. I told the children that if we wanted our hearts to match how we behave that we need to ask Jesus and to seek after him. Later in Matthew Jesus himself invites us to walk with him. In 11: 28 he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The burden Jesus talks about in this passage is the burden that the scribes and Pharisees, the religious experts, laid upon the people. They made following God’s laws difficult by adding to them and by parsing out what people could and couldn’t do in every minute detail. But Jesus says the yoke of his commandments is like a yoke for a pair of oxen. If we take Jesus’ yoke upon us, he assures us that he will be the older, more experienced, and stronger ox who leads and guides us, and who shoulders most of the burden. As we begin to walk in his ways with his guidance, we soon learn that his ways are the easier ways for they were the ways God designed the world and humans to be. Friends, let us come to Jesus, allow him to teach us to walk in his ways so that we may find true life in his kingdom and rest for our souls. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Gracious God, you created us in your image so that we would be steward of this world, living and working in it to help it flourish. Grant us humility so that we may open our hearts to the work of your Spirit who is refashioning us into the image of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Move us to answer Jesus’ invitation to come and rest in him, trusting that he is our true and faithful guide, so that we may live fully in your kingdom here and now, through Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.


[1] Jessica Gross, “How Language Can Affect the Way We Think,” Ideas.ted.com, February 19, 2013, http://ideas.ted.com/5-examples-of-how-the-languages-we-speak-can-affect-the-way-we-think/.

[2] Dallas Willard, Living in Christ’s Presence: Final words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014) pg. 14.

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February 5, 2017 True Fasting
(Matthew 5:13-20: Isaiah 58:1-12) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] So this morning I have something for you to see in this box. Who would like to come take a look? (They look into a large box with a peep hole.)  Who can tell me what you can see in there? Nothing? It’s too dark? Well, I have a light right here. What do you think of this light? That’s not very bright, is it? But let’s put it inside the box and see if that helps. (Lets them look again.) Now what do you see?  Puppies.

Jesus once told his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” Now you know how when it is very dark, like in your room at night, it only takes a tiny little light to help you to see and to make you feel safe. Sometimes we might think that I am just one person and that I can’t really do much for others. But when we follow Jesus and obey him, we are like little lights that shine in the dark. We can show people a bit of how Jesus wants this world to be. And when we do that we can also bring people hope when things are dark and scary. Now I wonder if you all know a song that we could sing that might help us remember that Jesus calls us the light of the world? [End]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The movie, Hidden Figures, tells the story of three black women who worked for NASA as human computers in the early 60’s. All three of them were instrumental in NASA’s success of putting the first man on the moon. When NASA roles in a brand new main frame IBM computer, one of the ladies, Dorothy Vaughn, realizes that her job and the job of her 20 colleagues is threatened. She goes to the library and checks out a book on Fortran. She sneaks into the computer room after hours and teaches herself to run the new computer. When the engineers are finally ready to start using the new computer, they need numerous programmers, but in 1961 computer programmers were virtually non-existent. Dorothy steps in and tells them that she has 20 women already trained and ready to go.  

Hidden Figures is a movie about racism and sexism. The white men in charge at NASA dismiss and overlook the incredible intelligence of these three brilliant black women. It is a movie about the determination of these women to use their God-given genius to serve their country. But while it is about all these things, most fundamentally, it is a movie about power: who has it; who is being prevented from using the power they do have, who is keeping them from using it, and how power can be used to empower others. While Dorothy Vaughn has to push for, grab after, and seize the power that she rightfully deserves, she uses the power she obtains to empower others.

Over the past few weeks we have been talking about power. As we have looked at Jesus’ baptism, his inauguration, if you will, about the nature of God’s kingdom that He proclaims is coming, and last week at the beatitudes, we have been talking about power: who has it, who doesn’t have power, and how those with power use their power. I argued that Jesus uses different forms of power to bring in God’s kingdom than the forms of power used by the kingdoms of the world. Last week I argued that in the Beatitudes Jesus basically says, “Blessed are the powerless, and those who empower them for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Today he invites us to participate with him in exercising the power of the kingdom of God. He says, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” So what is the power of salt and light? What is the nature of the power of God’s kingdom?

Author and former executive editor of Christianity Today, Andy Crouch, has been writing a lot lately on the nature of power in society and in the gospel.[1] I have used his diagram before, but I think it is extremely helpful. Crouch looks at humans and society in terms of authority and vulnerability. He defines authority as the capacity for meaningful human action. It is the power to affect your life and or the life of others in meaningful ways. Vulnerability is, well, being in a state of insecurity or in a state of risk.

Now think of where different people in society fall in this diagram. Those who have lots of authority but little vulnerability in quadrant A are the rich, the famous, the politically powerful, etc. These folks have lots of capacity for meaningful action and they are secure enough that they do not put themselves at risk when they exercise their authority. The poor, the meek, the oppressed are those in quadrant B. They are living paycheck to paycheck with little ability to better their situation and hoping that they don’t become sick and need to go to the doctor. They might then miss work and lose their job. I suppose refugees are the most prominent folks in the news from quadrant B these days. Crouch notes that we all start out in life, hopefully in quadrant C. Babies have little capacity for meaningful action but their parents protect them and keep them safe and secure to the best of our ability.

Now our natural tendency is to desire to move from C to A. We want to acquire authority, the capacity to act in meaningful ways without putting ourselves at risk. But most often we can’t avoid becoming vulnerable. As a child grows they have to move into spaces where they do become vulnerable. They have to go to school away from the watchful eyes of their mother and father. And eventually they go off to college and then their parents spend sleepless nights worrying about them.

Seeking to move into quadrant A is not only a temptation, it is, in the language of the bible, idolatrous. You see quadrant A is the place where idols dwell. Idols promise us power without vulnerability. The snake told Eve that she would have the knowledge of good and evil but that she would not die. The devil told Jesus that he could bow down and worship him and so receive the kingdoms of the world without having to go to the cross. Quadrant A is thus the way in which the world seeks to acquire and wield power. The world wants the power to act meaningfully without vulnerability. The world, in short, seeks to be like God.

So Quadrant A is the place of idols for it is there that we humans are tempted to be like God, but it is also the place of idols for when we or nations pursue authority without vulnerability, injustice inevitably follows. Think of those nations that seek total control without any vulnerability. They are all dictatorships of one sort or another for democracy by its very nature is a political system fraught with vulnerability. Such dictatorships promise authority and security for all, but what they deliver is authority and security for a very few, low levels of authority with low levels of vulnerability for some, but no authority and high vulnerability for many. Nations that seek high authority and low vulnerability have to build their security on the backs of those who are most vulnerable in society. That usually turns out to be an ethnic minority, people who are not like “us,” and can be demonized as a group.

So Quadrant A is the place of idolatry, but it is also the place that is most unlike God. For how does God in Jesus act? Jesus comes to us like all of us, a baby, without much power to act and needing the safety and security of Joseph and Mary to whisk him away from the murderous intentions of King Herod. But then, as Jesus takes up his ministry, he associates not with the rich and powerful in quadrant A, but with the poor and meek in quadrant B, with sinners, tax-collectors, the blind and the lame. He uses his power to raise them out of their insecurity and vulnerability. He uses his power to empower them. And this earns him the ire and fear of King Herod and the religious leaders both on the left and the right. Jesus intentionally moves not into quadrant A, but into quadrant D as he sets his face towards Jerusalem where he intends to take up his cross.

This morning he invites us to follow him. He calls us to be salt for the soil and the light of the world. So let’s think for a while about the properties of salt and light and how these metaphors encourage us to act in meaningful ways with authority, but also in ways that lead us into places of vulnerability.

When we hear salt, we think of sodium chloride. We think of salt that we use to flavor and preserve our food. But in Jesus’ day salt was used as a fertilizer. There are more kinds of salt than sodium chloride, salts that include magnesium, potassium and calcium sulfate, things that are beneficial to the soil and to plants. In an article in Christianity Today, Anthony Bradley writes:

Salt was used in arid places to help soil retain moisture, destroy weeds, make stubborn soils easier to till, and make sour grass sweeter and more appealing to cattle. In some soils, salt keeps rust from wheat, and blight from potatoes. When applied properly, salt will kill surface weeds while allowing more deeply rooted plants and grass to thrive. [2]

So when Jesus calls us the salt of the soil, he is calling us to do more than just add flavor to the world around us. We are called to do more than just act as a preservative in the world, stemming the tide of evil, as it were. Rather, we are called to follow in the steps of Jesus. We are called to seek out the vulnerable and seek out ways to enable them to obtain more power, more authority, more capability to act in meaningful, life-giving ways. Of course, we may first need to help them move into a more secure, less vulnerable space, but we know that unless we empower the poor, they will eventually fall back into a cycle of poverty and powerlessness again.

To act as salt is to act in ways that empower others. To act as light is to act in ways that reveal the true nature of things and in ways that give hope to the hopeless. After Jesus calls the disciples salt and light, he goes on to say that they must continue to follow God’s commandments, and that he has come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. Now Jesus himself summarizes the law by saying, “You shall love God with all your heart … and your neighbor as yourself.”  You could argue that Micah summarizes the law this way: “to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).  When we love our neighbors and seek justice, we reveal the injustices of the world around us, and we provide an example for all to follow, and we give hope to the hopeless. That, I believe, is how we shine the light of Christ in the world.

Now you may be feeling that this means that we all ought to quit our jobs and being working for non-profits like Salt and Light, or Habitat for Humanity. But I don’t think that is the case. Instead, let me encourage you to take a look at the organization you work for, the department you teach in, the places you volunteer. Look at them through the lens of this diagram. Are they run like a dictatorship in which those at the top control all things in order to guard their own power and their own security while those at the bottom are left with little authority and lots of vulnerability? Or are they places where those with lots of authority place themselves in positions of vulnerability by empowering others, by teaching others, by enabling others to make decisions, to be creative, and to take risks?

If you are in a system that fits in Quadrant A, who are the vulnerable people in that system with little authority? Who are those whom you need to identify with, advocate for, and seek to empower? And are there ways you can seek to influence those in power to move towards Quadrant D? Are there procedures you can suggest that would enable more power-sharing, more authority-sharing? Are there ways that you could suggest that would give more voice to those in Quadrant B? I guarantee you that advocating for such moves will put you in Quadrant D. You will be exercising authority, you will be acting in meaningful ways that will make you vulnerable to those who hold the power.

So what if the system you are in is already in Quadrant D? Then ask yourself who is this group serving? Is it serving people in Quadrant A or Quadrant B, and how could you influence things to move the system more towards serving those in Quadrant B?

I don’t think we all have to work for the for non-profit organizations that specifically target the poor and vulnerable in order to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. If we work in ways that move our organizations towards Quadrant D, that is, if we work in ways that move our organizations to be more like Jesus and the Kingdom of God, we will develop an outlook and the skills ourselves to be better able to serve the poor and the vulnerable in all areas of our lives. In being salt in our places of work or volunteering, we will train ourselves to be salt in all areas of our lives. And in being salt, we will be light to those around us. We will always be exposing injustice for what it is. We will be living as an example for others to follow. And we will be giving hope and inspiration to those who are vulnerable. 

True worship of God, true devotion to God, a true fast, Isaiah says consists in this: “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke. It is to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter. … If you do away with the yoke of oppression, … and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

O God, in the folly of the cross

you reveal the great distance

between your wisdom and human understanding.

Open our minds to the simplicity of the gospel,

that, fervent in faith and tireless in love,

we may become light and salt for the world,

for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.


[1] See Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2013); Andy Crouch, and “Andy Crouch - January 5 Evening Session of InterVarsity’s National Staff Conference 2017,” accessed February 5, 2017, https://vimeo.com/197329851.

[2] Anthony B. Bradley, “You Are the Manure of the Earth | Christianity Today,” September 23, 2016, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/october/you-are-manure-of-earth.html.

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January 29, 2017 The Foolish Gospel, the Foolish Kingdom
(Matthew 5:1-12) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] There once was a brother and a sister who had a hard time getting along. If one of them played with a toy, the other one wanted it and would try to take it away. If one of them was looking at a book, the other wanted to look at it too and would read it over the other’s shoulder. They fought about which chair they got to sit at the table, who got the first piece of cake, and who got to sit on Grandma’s lap, and on and on it went. Well, finally, their father had had enough. He sat them down and told them that if they did something nice for each other every day, he would give them a nickel. And so it went, every day they would try to remember to do something nice for each other. One day the brother would let the sister pick what game they would play and she let him pick which color he wanted to be. Another day the sister let her brother have the biggest cookie, and he let her borrow his baseball glove. And each evening, if they had done something nice, the father would reward them with a nickel.

So I thought that was a pretty good idea. So I have here a handful of nickels. Here each of you take one. So, here’s the deal. If you do something nice this week for your brother or sister, or a friend, or you mom or your dad, I will give you a nickel. Oh, wait, I was supposed to give you the nickel after you did something nice. I already gave you the nickel, didn’t I? I did that kind of backwards. Well how about this? Now that I gave you the nickel, now that I have done something nice to you, maybe you can do do something else for someone else?

I kind of got that all backwards. Well sometimes Jesus does things and says things that we might think are kind of backwards. For instance, we probably think that the people who will be in the Kingdom of God are those people who are the most spiritual, right? The people who will be in the kingdom of God will be those who have the greatest faith in God. They will be those people who obey God the best. They will be those who are kindest to others as Jesus tells us to, right?

But this morning we read that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He says blessed are those we think are not very spiritual. Blessed are those who might think that they themselves are not very good. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Maybe Jesus said that to remind us that he loves us and forgives us even when we are not so good. Maybe he loves us first so that we can learn to love him and to love others in return. [end]

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Last week I argued that Jesus’s first days of ministry demonstrated that the way of God’s Kingdom turned the ways of the kingdoms of this world on their heads. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes that the gospel of Christ, the good news of Christ he proclaims, and that we are to proclaim, is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (23).  The world sees a suffering savior and a crucified Lord as utter foolishness, but for us who believe, Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (24).

In Matthew 5 Jesus, in his first full length sermon, begins to describe God’s foolish kingdom. In the Beatitudes he particularly addresses the question many people of his day asked, “Who will be in the Kingdom of God?” The similarity of themes between Paul and the Beatitudes makes me wonder if Paul was not thinking of the Beatitudes when he wrote that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – the things that are not – to nullify the things that are” (27-28). He and Jesus turn the assumed ways of the world on their heads. A foolish gospel needs a foolish kingdom.

Many have looked upon the Beatitudes as sort of a list of Christian virtues that we must work to develop in order to be accepted into God’s Kingdom. This is first of all problematic for it is sort of a works righteousness, assuming that we earn our way into salvation by becoming humble and meek and hungering and thirsting for righteousness. But more importantly, this ignores the historical context and so not only takes the Beatitudes out of their historical context, but then puts them into the context of a 15th century theological debate between Luther and the Catholic church. While the Beatitudes do address “Who is in the Kingdom,” they are not a treatise on how we are saved by grace alone through faith. Rather, Jesus describes the characteristics of those who find themselves under the reign of God, that is, those who find themselves in God’s foolish kingdom.

So how did people in Jesus’ day answer the question of who would be in the kingdom of God? Well, first of all we have to remember what they meant by the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God basically meant the rule of God on earth that would be executed through the restoration of Israel as a great and mighty nation. Most of the Jews of Jesus’ day hoped for a Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and establish justice in Israel and the proper worship of God in God’s temple. Once this happened, the prophets promised that the nations of the world would stream to Jerusalem so that the Word of God could flow out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Last week we saw that Jesus overturned how he as the Messiah would make this actually come about. He would pick up a cross instead of a sword, and he would make disciples who would, in turn, make more disciples, instead of reestablishing Israel. Instead of following the ways of the world, Jesus took up a cross and established his the church.  

A second question was then who would participate in this renewed Israel? Who would be welcome in the Kingdom of God? Various factions of the Jewish community had different views on the matter. On one extreme, the folks at Qumran believed that only they would be saved for only they had totally separated themselves from the Gentiles and from the rest of the Jews who were contaminated by the Gentiles. On the other extreme, the Sadducees didn’t believe in any of this anyway, so they thought God blessed their efforts to accommodate themselves to the rule of Rome.

In the middle, the Pharisees taught that only the truly righteous among God’s people, only those who followed the laws of Moses and the traditions of the elders, would be counted among the righteous. Tax-collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners were obviously out. The poor were obviously not blessed by God, so their position was tentative at best. Likewise, the blind, the lame, and those possessed by demons were also obviously unclean and so not among the righteous. Only those who were clean and pure according to the Laws were righteous and would be admitted into the Kingdom.

So how does Jesus answer this question? Who will be in the kingdom? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, ... Blessed are the meek,” and so on.  So maybe Jesus is contrasting the proud self-righteousness of the Pharisees and others with the humility we truly need to receive God’s blessing. Maybe these are prescriptions for true Christian virtues. But before we conclude that, before we put Jesus’ words into the context of our modern theology, let’s look at them in the context of the theology of Jesus’ day. Let’s look at them in the context of the scriptures.

In Psalm 41 the Psalmist writes, “Blessed are those who consider the poor.” Jesus obviously alludes to this verse when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In Psalm 37:11 the psalmist writes, “But the meek shall inherit the land.”  Jesus doesn’t just merely allude to this verse, he quotes it. Finally, when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted, I believe he alludes to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who says, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor … to comfort all who mourn, and to provide for those who mourn in Zion” (61:1-3).

Taken as a group, the first three beatitudes -Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and the meek – refer to those in the Old Testament who are the recipients of God’s salvation. Over and over again in the Psalms God is said to protect the poor, to redeem the poor, to save the poor, to watch over them, and to throw down their oppressors. The history of the nation of Israel is a history of a poor nation repeatedly in need of God’s salvation. Those who mourn in the Old Testament are most often the people of God who have found themselves once again under the oppression of a foreign power, be it Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, or Persia. They mourn the fact that they are oppressed and in exile, and they mourn their own sinfulness that led to their exile. The meek are those who are oppressed and have no recourse to protect themselves except God. Taken as a whole, Jesus reminds every one of their own story, of Israel’s history, which teaches that those who will inherit God’s kingdom are those who are in need of God’s mercy and salvation – the poor, those who mourn, and the meek.

‘But,’ you may object, ‘Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” He is not speaking about the physically poor, but the spiritually poor.’  Let me suggest that Jesus is speaking of both the physically and the spiritually poor, and that “the poor in spirit” encompasses the physically poor. First, in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus simply says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for your is the kingdom of God” (6:20). Whatever Jesus means in Matthew, it cannot be opposed to what he says in Luke. The physically poor and the spiritually poor are not opposites.

Second, remember the context. The Pharisees and others thought that those who were excluded from the kingdom were those who were unrighteous and that wealth was a mark of God’s blessing and so a mark of righteousness. The “poor in spirit” refers to those who think or are told by others that they have no hope of God’s favor. They are those who are told or think that they are beyond the pale of God’s mercy and salvation. That applies to those who are hopeless spiritually because they are not “righteous.” but also those who are spiritually hopeless because they are poor and oppressed. Rather than referring to two different groups, “the poor in spirit” refers to a larger group of which “the poor” is a portion of.

Third, remember the context of scripture. Jesus alludes to Psalm 41:1, “Blessed are those who consider the poor.” Jesus upsets people’s expectations. They expect the righteous to be blessed, those like Boaz who helped out poor Naomi and Ruth. “Blessed are those who consider the poor.” But he says “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Blessed are not only those who look out for the poor, but also the poor themselves. Blessed are those whom you consider to be unrighteous, unworthy of God’s mercy, for the kingdom does not belong to those who know they are righteous, or those you assume are righteous because of their wealth, but to those you think are beyond the pale of God’s mercy. Jesus himself says in 9:13, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  

So Jesus upends the common assumptions of who will be in the Kingdom of God. It will not, first and foremost, be those who follow Moses’ laws meticulously. It will not, first and foremost, be the pious who keep themselves from being contaminated by the Gentiles. It will be, first and foremost, the poor, the poor in spirit, the meek, and those who mourn. It will be, in short, those who are in need of God’s salvation.

But that is not all Jesus has to say. He goes on, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (6-9). If those in the first three beatitudes are the recipients of God’s mercy, those in the next four are those who bear the image of God as they show mercy to the poor, the poor in spirit, the meek, and the oppressed.

To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to hunger for God to be faithful to his covenant and to redeem his people. It is to hunger for the loving kindness of God which will set things to right in the world. It is to hunger and thirst for justice for the oppressed for the word “righteousness” also means “justice.”

To be merciful is to follow the very example of the God who is merciful to the poor and oppressed. The pure in heart are those who look to God direct their way. The pure in heart desire to imitate God. And who is it that makes peace in the word? Who is it that creates shalom, but God himself and those who will be called children of God? Those who will find themselves in the kingdom of God are those who were in need of God’s mercy and those who bear the image of God and show mercy to those who are in need of mercy.

Jesus brings these two groups together in verse 10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, or because of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are those who seek the righteousness and justice of God because they themselves are poor and oppressed, and blessed are those who seek the righteousness and justice of God on behalf of those who are poor and oppressed. But when someone lives in ways that imitate the mercy, the righteousness, and the justice of God, they will challenge the powers that be, and they will be persecuted. But they can know this, they are blessed, for then they are living in the way of Christ Jesus and in the kingdom of God.

Finally, Jesus concludes the introduction to his sermon with an application. “Blessed are you,” he says to his disciples, “when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Jesus here makes it plain that the theological context of this passage is the story of Israel. It was the prophets, after all, who constantly reminded the people of God. They reminded them that God was the God who redeemed the poor, saved the oppressed, and raised up the meek and lowly. And they reminded the people that Israel was the poor and meek and mournful nation that God had saved time and time again so that they could then be a light to the world, so that they could bear God’s image in the world, seeking after the ways of God, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, showing others mercy, and being makers of shalom.

Someone asked me last week during the refreshments, “What then do we do?” So the ways of Christ and the ways of God turn the ways of the world’s kingdoms on their heads, so we believe in a foolish gospel, and so the kingdom, those who are in it and those who represent it, turns the kingdoms of the world on their heads, so it is a foolish kingdom, what do we do? In the words of the prophet Micah, “He has shown you, O Mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Holy God, you confound the world’s wisdom

in giving your kingdom to the lowly and the pure in heart.

Give us such a hunger and thirst for justice

and perseverance in striving for peace,

that by our words and deeds

the world may see the promise of your kingdom,

revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.

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January 22, 2017 Thy Kingdom Come
(Matthew 4:12-25) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Do you all know what happened on Friday? Donald Trump became our new president. So yesterday was his first day in office, and today is his second day in office. This morning we are going to read the story of the first days of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew tells us that Jesus began his ministry by going around the villages in Galilee and telling people the good news that God’s Kingdom was near, that it was coming. Jesus then goes down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and he finds two brothers, Peter and Andrew, who were fishing. He says to them, “Come, and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Now when we think of fishing, we probably think of someone standing on the shore, or maybe on a dock, or maybe sitting in a boat holding a fishing pole over the water. Maybe you have seen people fishing in different ways from around the world, but here in the United States most people fish by using a pole with a hook on the end. But that is not how Peter and Andrew fished in the Sea of Galilee. They would go out in their boat and throw a net out onto the water. The net probably had rocks tied to the edges so it sank down into the water and then they would draw it back to them, hopefully with a bunch of fish inside it.

So when Jesus tells Peter and Andrew that he is going to make them fishers of men, I wonder what kind of net they are going to use to catch people. I wonder how Jesus makes them into fishers of men. Do you have any ideas? And if we are Jesus’ disciples, how are we supposed to be fishers of people?

Matthew tells us that after Jesus called Peter and Andrew, and then two more brothers, James and John, that, “he went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, telling people the good news that God’s kingdom was coming, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.”  I think that that is exactly how Jesus wanted his disciples to fish for people. He wanted them to tell others about him and to do kind things to people. He wanted them to show others and to tell others about God’s love. And I think Jesus wants us to do the same thing. He wants us to be fishers of people too. [End}.

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Every new President comes into office with an agenda for how to rule the country. They have a vision for what direction the county ought to go and some different policies as to how to get there. We all should have a pretty good idea of what that is since the President should have made these things clear during the presidential campaign.

President Trump made his vision for the country pretty clear in his inaugural address.[1] He promised to make America great again. If his inaugural address is any indication, his basic plan is to end American entanglements in international affairs and to focus on America. According to Trump America has spent far too much money trying to help other nations and to build up the “armies of other countries.” From now on, he said, “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” The only international issue he committed to addressing was the elimination of radical Islamic terrorism.

Trump’s domestic policy can be summed up in two words: rebuild and refocus. He promised to rebuild the American military and to rebuild America’s infrastructure, its roads, bridges and so forth. His main agenda, however, is to refocus America’s priorities. Economically he said, “We will follow two simple rules; buy American and hire American.” Politically, he promised to shift power away from the political establishment to the people. The folks in Washington, he claimed have “reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. … The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.” That was the way of the past. But “today,” he claimed, “we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”

President Trump’s speech was remarkable in many ways, but typical in others. The nations of this world advance their agendas through the same tools of power. They have political power. They have economic power. And they have military power. Trump’s speech may have been remarkable for its appeal to populism, for its total disregard for the achievements of the past administration, and for its promised about face in terms of American involvement in world affairs, but it was typical in that Trump relies upon the same powers that all nations of this world rely upon: politics, economics, and guns.

What was perhaps most troublesome was the thinly veiled appeal to a fourth power. While promising to protect America by rebuilding the military and supporting law enforcement, he added almost as an aside, “And most importantly, we will be protected by God.” In the only other mention of God, he quotes Psalm 133, “How good and pleasant it is when [God’s people] live together in unity.” It is telling that Psalm 133 says “when brothers live together in unity.” What these references to God indicate or appeal to is our American civic religion, the belief that America is God’s chosen nation, that we are “God’s people” so we can trust that God is on our side, and that what is good for America as a nation is good for the Kingdom of God.

These are the first few days of Trump’s Presidency and everyone is watching closely to see what he will do first. In our gospel reading, we sort of see Jesus’ first day in office. He gives his first speech, a rather short one, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17).   And he begins to put together his cabinet: “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people” (18-19).

Now I am not comparing Jesus to Trump just because the inauguration is a current event. Trump emphasized in his speech that his inauguration marked the beginning of a whole new era in American politics. Matthew, in our passage today, wants us to know that the beginning of Jesus’ ministry marks a new age in the history of God’s people. In verse 13 he tells how Jesus left Nazareth and went to Capernaum to start his ministry. He says this fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: " Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”

Now Matthew is not merely saying that Jesus’ teaching and his ministry bring a level of enlightenment, a new light, to the people of Israel. He is talking about the light of God’s salvation coming to a specific place for a specific reason. The salvation Jesus brings to Israel begins in Galilee, the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, because those were the first two tribes to be conquered by the Assyrians and carried off into exile. In other words, God’s salvation in Jesus is a final end to the exile which began 750 years earlier. Jesus affirms this with his first speech, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” The sin that led Israel into exile is about to be forgiven and God is going to reconcile his people to him.

So both Jesus and Trump claim that a new era begins with them, and they each understand that that era is a Kingdom of sorts. The new era in the US will be defined by economic, political and military changes. If the coming of the Kingdom of God means an end to Israel’s exile, then it will also have political, economic, social, and military implications. The salvation Jesus brings in the coming Kingdom of God is not just spiritual or heavenly, it is the ways of heaven brought to bear on earth.

So there are some general similarities between the nature of the kingdoms brought by Jesus and Donald Trump. But the similarities end in generalities.  When it comes to specifics, the kingdom Jesus brings and the nation Trump envisions are fundamentally different.

A couple of weeks ago I commented on the differences between Trump’s inauguration and Jesus’ anointing in his baptism by John in the River Jordan. While Trump made vows to uphold the constitution and to obey the laws of the land, Jesus made no such vow. Instead God made promises to him. God promised to love him and to empower him through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Trump casts his vision for the country. Jesus receives his mission from God.

On Friday, after Donald Trump swore his oaths of office, he reviewed the troops of the American military and then led a parade from the Capital to the White House. Later that evening Trump celebrated with family, friends, and supporters at three different balls. On the other hand, Jesus, after he was baptized by John, was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Instead of a parade, Jesus spent 40 days alone in the wilderness. Instead of dancing, food and $20 glasses of champagne, Jesus fasted and then refused the devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread. Instead of a review of the troops, Jesus refused to bow down to the devil. Instead of presuming that “we will be protected by God,” Jesus refused to put God to the test.

Now it is Jesus’ first days into his ministry. Now he is going to set his agenda. Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is going to do something momentous. He is going to bring in the Kingdom of God. So what does Jesus do? He proclaims the good news about the kingdom. He calls people to repent and to put their faith in God. He heals the sick and casts out demons. And he gathers to himself disciples who will do the same.

This, my friends, is how the kingdom of God advances. This is God’s agenda for his kingdom. This is his plan. And in case we should miss the point, Matthew ends his gospel on the same note. The last thing Jesus says to his disciples is, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” And it isn’t just Matthew. In Luke Jesus informs his disciples that they will be his witnesses proclaiming his name to all the nations beginning in Jerusalem.

One of the most distressing things about Trump becoming president is how divisive he seems to be. Although he claims he is going to unite the country, Americans remain as divided as they were under President Obama, if not more so. What is more distressing, however, is how divided Christians are over President Trump. Some Christians truly believe that President Trump will advance the cause of Christianity in the country, that the Kingdom of God will advance because of who he nominates to the Supreme Court and how he will put an end to Obama’s liberal social agenda. Others, however, fear the opposite. They fear that under Trump our nation will become a less just, less compassionate, and less peaceful society, and so the Kingdom of God will be on the retreat.

I said earlier that I found Trump’s assumption that God would protect America and that Americans are synonymous with “God’s people” the most troublesome thing about his speech. It is also troubling that some Christians identify Trump’s agenda with God’s agenda. But if Christians who oppose Trump believe that his presidency is a roadblock to the advance of the Kingdom of God, then they are guilty of the same type of thinking. If they think that in opposing Trump and working for civil rights, or the protection of immigrants, or what have you, that they will advance and build the kingdom of God, then they are resorting to the worldly powers that Jesus refused to use. If we think in this way, if we think we are building the kingdom through our political and social action, then we must believe that God is on our side over against our political opponents.

The kingdom does have economic, social, and political implications. If we call Jesus Lord, he demands that we seek justice for all and work for peace. Doing such things is good in and of itself. But in doing so, we only bear witness to the nature of the kingdom. We do not build the kingdom itself. If we are truly on the side of justice, then we point to the justice and righteousness of God. And so when we work for justice, we should always do so as part of God’s agenda to advance his kingdom. But his agenda is that we should proclaim the good news of the kingdom in word and in deed, and that we should call people to repent and to put their faith in God. Our primary task in the kingdom of God is to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and to invite people to become disciples of Jesus Christ.

 My friends, it is a grace of God that he does not shoulder us with the responsibility of building his kingdom. The fate of God’s kingdom is not in our hands. We can trust that it is in God’s hands. Because of this we can truly be people of peace. In trusting God, we can work for justice and peace even when we know that our efforts will have little or no immediate effects. Because we trust in God and not our own efforts, we need not resort to force or to violence. Because we trust in God, we can treat all people with kindness and gentleness. Because we trust in God, we can love all people, even our enemies. And so as we work for peace and justice, whether we succeed or fail, we will bear witness to God’s kingdom and thus proclaim the good news of the kingdom.

Jesus’ first days of ministry were not just his strategy for his first 100 days in office. Matthew’s description of these days is a summary of Jesus’ whole ministry, and it is the model Jesus set for his disciples back then and it the model he set for his disciples today. Let us therefore believe the good news and trust that God’s Kingdom is coming. Let us repent of trying to force it to come by our efforts. And let us follow Jesus. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Almighty God, you have called us to be fishers of people, to proclaim the good news of your kingdom and to bear witness in word and deed to our Lord Jesus Christ. Grant us your Spirit so that our lives may bear the mark of you Kingdom and we may be your faithful people –disciples of your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. For it is in his name we pray. Amen.



[1] Aaron Blake, “Donald Trump’s full inauguration speech transcript, annotated,” The Washington Post (January 20, 2017) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/01/20/donald-trumps-full-inauguration-speech-transcript-annotated/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=nextdraft&utm_term =.f935d2fdc3bc

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January 15, 2017 Come, and you will see
(John 1:29-42) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] One of my favorite drinks when I was a kid was chocolate milk. My mom didn’t buy chocolate milk, but we made it at home ourselves. And it was very easy to make. You only needed two ingredients: milk and chocolate milk mix.. [pours milk into pitcher and adds chocolate].  Would you like to try some?

Now suppose I just had some milk in this glass, and some chocolate mix in this little bowl? Is that chocolate milk? How about that? What if I put them real close together? No. If you want chocolate milk you have to have both chocolate and milk together. You can’t separate them. If you do, you might have milk and you might have chocolate, but you don’t have chocolate milk.

Next week we are going to sing a song that you sing with Mrs. Priscilla: He Came Down. Do you remember that? He came down that we may have hope. And the second verse is, “He came down that we may have peace.” And then joy, and love, and the last verse is, “He came down that we may have life.”

So Jesus came to us so that we could have all those things: hope, peace, joy, love, and life. But what did he do to bring us those things? [Died on the cross and rose from the grave to save us from our sins.] Yes. In fact in our gospel reading from John, John the Baptist sees Jesus and he says, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  So Jesus gives us all those things by taking away our sins on the cross and giving us new life through the resurrection.

But then the Gospel of John goes on to tell how some of John’s disciples started following Jesus. They asked him, “Where are you staying.” And Jesus said, “Come, and you will see.” So they started following him and listening to him teach them and the people about God. And so Jesus gave them those things – hope, peace, joy, love, and life – because they followed him and his teachings.

So, in a way, Jesus is sort of like chocolate milk. He gives us hope, peace, joy, love, and life by dying on the cross for us and rising from the dead, but we only know that hope, peace, joy and love if we follow him. We have to live in his ways to know and to have the gifts he gives us. And you can’t take one thing away from the other, you have to have both together. [end]

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Last month New York Time’s columnist Nicholas Kristof interviewed Pastor Tim Keller, a best-selling author of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. [1] Kristof basically asks Keller, “Am I a Christian?” Kristof has trouble believing the miraculous aspects of the Christian story, the virgin birth, the resurrection and the like, but he admires Jesus’ ethical teaching. In a sense Kristof asks, “Is it not enough to believe in what Jesus has taught us to do, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be a Christian? Must one also believe in the resurrection?”

The interview brings up a telling divide between many Christians. When asked why Jesus became human, some Christians will point immediately to the cross and the resurrection. He came, as John the Baptist says, as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus sums up his mission in John 3:14, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” And in 12:23, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. … But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” And in 10:11, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. … No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.” Jesus’ fulfills his mission to save the world in and through his death on the cross and his resurrection.

Other Christians, however, will argue that Jesus’ death on the cross was an example of his love and that the essence of Christianity is following Jesus. Two of John’s disciples hear John pointing Jesus out as the Lamb of God, and so they follow him. “I am the vine,” Jesus teaches in chapter 15, “you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit. … Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. … My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” The cross, you see, is the prime example of the love of God for us, and the love we are to have for our neighbors. Love is the essence of Christianity and of Jesus’ mission.

In response to Kristof, Keller says, “[Jesus’] important ethical teaching only makes sense when you don’t separate it from these historical doctrines. If the Resurrection is a genuine reality, it explains why Jesus can say that the poor and the meek will ‘inherit the earth.’” I would argue that an even stronger claim can be made. Without the resurrection, Jesus’ ethical teaching amounts to at worst mere sentimentality and at best inspiration. It is a nice and good thought that we ought to love others, even to the point of giving our lives for others. But unless such a death accomplishes something concrete, that death is merely a tragedy. Jesus taught that he came to bring life, and life in abundance, but he also taught that he would do that through his death. If Jesus merely died and did not rise again, where is the life he promised? If his body decomposed in a tomb 2,000 years ago, then he was defeated and death won out. We may be inspired by his death, but it brings no real life.

Some Christians will respond that the “Spirit of Jesus” was resurrected in the church as it began to teach people Jesus’ ways.  Keller would point out that the only reason the early followers of Jesus continued to repeat his teachings was that they believed that he rose again from the dead. As Jews, they knew that a crucified Messiah was a failed Messiah. As Jews, they could never imagine worshipping anyone or anything else except God alone, not any other god, and certainly not any human being as the Romans worshipped Caesar.

But the early Christians worshipped Jesus and they claimed him to be God, the Word of God made flesh. There is no other historical explanation for why a group of Jews would do this and believe this except that they believed that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. His resurrection demonstrated that he was indeed their Messiah, that he was triumphant over death and sin, and that he should be obeyed as Lord of Life. The cross and the resurrection are integral to the mission of Christ Jesus. Keller argues, “If something is truly integral to a body of thought, you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing.”

In his defense of the integral nature of the resurrection however, Keller makes the opposite mistake. At one point in the interview he says, “Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people through his death for sin and his resurrection.” If some Christians try to find the essence of Jesus and his mission in his ethical teaching, others, like Keller, try to find it in his death and resurrection. But then Jesus’ ethical teaching becomes a mere add on, an addition to what is essential. Sadly, Jesus’ ethical teaching is often forgotten, compromised – “It isn’t that important to work for justice or racial equality” -  or treated as optional.

When two of John’s disciples hear him point Jesus out as the Lamb of God, they leave John and follow Jesus. They ask Jesus where he is staying, and Jesus replies, “Come, and you will see.”  To be a follower of Jesus is not only to believe in him, it is not only to believe in his death and resurrection, one must actually follow him. Throughout the gospels the demons are the ones who recognize Jesus as the Holy One. They know who Jesus was and they now know that Jesus died and was raised to new life, but they do not follow him. Yes, Jesus came to bring salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life through his death and resurrection, but the salivation he brings is not just a philosophy. It is not just something to believe, it is new life, it is something to be lived. You can’t say that you have “salvation” unless you are following in the way of Christ.

As Keller points out Jesus’ ethical teachings don’t make sense without the cross and resurrection. Likewise, the cross and resurrection don’t make sense without his ethical teachings. If you take away the resurrection from Jesus’ ethics, you are left with mere sentimentality, but if you take away Jesus’ ethical teachings from the cross and resurrection, you are left with a wrathful, tyrannical god who requires child sacrifice to satisfy his vengeance. The cross wasn’t just a legal calculation to satisfy the wrath of God. Jesus lived out his ethical teachings in his death and resurrection. The salvation Jesus gives us is realized in the new life he leads us into. Jesus’ teaching, the cross, the resurrection, and, I would add, the ascension and return of Christ, are all essential ingredients to the mission of Jesus. And so is the life of the Church.

Now I could quote more scripture but perhaps a story would make a better case: Once up on a time there was a student of philosophy who longed to find the meaning of life. At university he read all the major philosophers. He kept up on all the latest trends in philosophy, but he remained confused, sad, and hopeless.

One evening he attended the wedding of a friend. As he sat in the church an elderly man walked to the front with a violin and started playing the prelude. As the student listened, he felt a deep sense of hope welling up within him. All the anxieties and pessimism of the philosophers he read suddenly appeared childish to him. Just think of all the possibilities that life holds for each and every one of us, the student thought. What a precious gift is life.

The service proceeded with the procession and then the pastor talked for a few minutes about the meaning of marriage. Before the recitation of vows the old man stood up again to play. As he played the student felt a deep sense of love welling up within him. He thought of his parents and the care and devotion they had given him his whole life. He thought of his sister and how he knew he could always count on her. He watched the faces of his friends at the front of the church and loved them for the love they had for each other so plain for all to see. He knew that no philosopher could derive any deeper meaning from life than the love he felt for all those he knew.

After the wedding the whole congregation made their way to a reception hall in the center of the town. After all the toasts were made and people began enjoying the meal, the old man stood up again and began to play his violin. As he ate, the student felt an enormous sense of joy welling up within him. He tasted blackberry and chocolate notes as he felt the velvety texture of the red wine on his tongue. He noticed how the conversation at his table took a turn. The lady across from him told a story about her wedding that set everyone to laughing. He thought no book of philosophy has ever made me feel so happy.

After the meal the DJ took over and the couple came to the dance floor for the first dance. Not much of a dancer, the student sat off to the side, content to watch others have their fun. As the evening came to a close, the DJ asked everyone to thank the bride’s grandfather for playing his violin. Everyone applauded as the old man took to the front of the dance floor and began playing once again. As he played a lullaby to send everyone off, the student felt an enormous sense of peace welling up within him. He knew that he had come to know and experience the meaning of life.

After the old man finished, everyone started heading for the door. The student hung back to speak to old man. He thanked him for playing and told him how he was a philosophy student but that he had never in all his reading understood the meaning of life until he heard the man playing his violin. The old smiled and said that he had been waiting for someone who understood to come along. “I am old,” he said, “And it is time I pass this violin along to someone young. Here, take the violin. But know this. This is no ordinary violin. This violin possesses a great gift. This violin may bring you hope. This violin may bring you love. This violin may bring you joy. This violin may bring you peace. This violin is priceless for it brings the gift of life.”

The student couldn’t believe the old man’s generosity or his good fortune. He tried to protest, saying he couldn’t possibly take such a gift. But the old man insisted, saying, “I received this violin as a gift. It was given to me as I am giving it to you. Keep it, until you find someone who truly understands the gift it is.” With that, the student had no option but to receive this precious gift.

That night the student hardly slept. He placed the violin on a chair in his bedroom, crawled into bed, and began to wonder, “What am I to do with this violin? It must be worth millions. Who else knows about it? What if someone tries to steal it from me? What if someone tries to kill me for it?”

In the morning the student went to his parents’ house while they were at work. He climbed up into the attic and hid the violin in an old chest buried beneath a stack of dusty cloth. He then went to school to attend his seminar on the Concepts of Human Nature.

The student continued his study of philosophy at the university. He graduated and then went on to graduate school. He received his Ph.D. and took up a teaching position at a small liberal arts college. Sometimes he remembered that night of the wedding as if it were a dream, but it made him feel foolish. He never did fall in love with anyone. He and his sister fell out, arguing over how to care for their aging parents. He had become well recognized in the area of continental philosophy, but his life was empty. While his journal articles earned him respect among his colleagues, he wrote with little conviction and no contentment.

One year during the Christmas holidays he came back to his home town to visit his parents and sister. After getting in an argument with his sister he left the house in a huff and went for a walk. On his walk he happened to run in to his friends from the wedding all those years ago. He had kept in touch with them a bit – just a Christmas card every year and the occasional comment on Facebook. He asked his friend how her grandfather was doing. She told him that he was sick and in hospice care. While he didn’t have long to live, she said, he was content for he knew he had lived a long and good life.

The next day he went to visit the old man in the hospice center. “I don’t know if you remember me,” he said to the old man, “but I am the one you gave your violin to.” “Of course I remember you,” said the man. “And how are you? Has the violin brought you the hope and joy and peace and love I told you it could bring you.”  “I don’t know what it is,” said the philosopher,” but it has not. I am a successful professor of philosophy, but I don’t have anyone to love, I find little joy in my profession, I am anxious about my life, and I have little hope for the future.” “Well,” said the old man, “how often do you play your violin? How often do you play it for others?” “Well, never,” he replied, “I don’t know how to play the violin.” “My son,” the old man said, “You must learn. The gift takes devotion. The violin only brings life when it is played.”

My friends, the gift of salvation Jesus brings only gives life if it is lived. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Almighty and gracious God, you sent your Son Jesus to us to live out your mercy, your love, and your faithfulness, and so to lead us through death and resurrection into eternal life. Help us to believe and to obey that we may be filled with the music of new life, promised in the power of Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. One God, now and forever. Amen.



[1] “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?”, The New York Times (December 23, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/opinion/sunday/pastor-am-i-a-christian.html?_r=0

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January 8, 2017 The Anointed
(Matthew 3:13-17) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] When I was a kid and we made a promise to another friend, we would often cross our hearts. We would say, “I promise I will give your soccer ball back to you tomorrow. Cross my heart.” Do kids do something like that today? When you make a promise to someone, is there something else you do?  Have you ever heard of a pinky promise? I think that is what kids do today. They make a promise and then they shake pinky fingers. I think the idea is that by doing some sort of extra action along with your promise, you make the promise more sincere.

In just about two weeks there is going to be a big ceremony in Washington D.C. when Donald Trump becomes the new president of the United States. Now to become our new President he has to make some promises. He has to promise to obey and uphold the laws of the county. And when he makes those promises, he will lay his hand on a Bible. By putting his hand on the Bible, he makes that promise not only to the people of the United States, but to God as well. 

In Bible times when a new person became the king of Israel, they also had a ceremony. At that ceremony they poured oil over the head of the king. But what was different was that the oil did not signify the promise the king made. No, the oil signified the promises God made to the king. The oil signified that God had chosen the king to be king, and that God would give the king his Spirit so that the king could be a good king.

This morning in our gospel reading, Jesus comes to John the Baptist to bebaptized in the River Jordan. When Jesus comes up out of the river, the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven in the form of a dove and lands on Jesus’ head. So instead of having oil poured on his head, Jesus had water poured over his head and had the Holy Spirit land on him. This demonstrated that God had chosen him to be our king. And as Jesus came up out of the river, a voice form heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  In a sense, God promised to make Jesus the King, that he would always be with him through the Holy Spirit, and that he would always love him.

And you know what, when we are baptized, God promises us the same thing. When we are baptized, he promises us that we have become his children, his son or daughter, he promises that he will always love us, and he promises to give us the Holy Spirit so that we can do what he wants us to do. [End]
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I think I can count on both hands the number of articles I have seen over the past two months explaining why Donald Trump was able to win the election that come to the same conclusion: rural Americans want to make America great again. The articles point to several different things that rural Americans mean by making America great again. First, they want a return to a more robust rural economy. They want the coal, oil and manufacturing industries to provide them with the steady jobs they once had. Second, they are angry with politics as usual. They believe that most politicians in Washington are corrupt, in it for themselves, and part of a system that benefits everyone but rural America. Third, they harbor a fear and resentment towards minorities and immigrants whom they see as endangering their economic standing and eroding traditional American values.

The thing that I find most troubling, however, is that all of these desires and fears are wrapped up in a fear, anger, and resentment that America has become less and less of a Christian nation. Christian values, as they define them, are no longer as influential as they used to be, and they cannot be assumed. The title of a recent Washington Post article sums it up, “How nostalgia for white Christian America drove so many Americans to vote for Trump.”[i]

While Christians who didn’t vote for Trump are wondering how to respond to a Trump presidency, it is important to recognize that there is a more fundamental issue at stake here. Some may see the election of Trump as a major shift in American politics, but his success is due, in part, to a greater, more fundamental shift in American culture and society: the end of Christendom. By Christendom, I mean a state in which Christians are those within society who hold the most power politically and culturally. Christendom is over because Christianity and Christian values are no longer the default culture shapers that they once were in American society. How we as Christians respond to this shift in culture and society is a more important question than whether we welcome Trump as President or are trying to figure out how to respond in a Christ-like manner to the Trump Presidency.

While many evangelicals mourn this loss of Christian influence and power in society, others see it as a mixed bag, if not a blessing. You see, the Post article makes an important point, what many Christians are nostalgic for is not just a Christian America, but a white Christian America. The America upheld in years past by the so-called “Christian values” was a racist America. It was also a society and culture in which these so-called “Christian values” were upheld by, advanced by, and wedded to the various secular economic, political and military powers of the State and society. The values of God’s Kingdom and the advancement of God’s kingdom were often easily confused with the values of the United States and the advancement of the economic and geopolitical interests of the United States. Defeating communism during the Cold War, for example, was seen as an advancement not just of Democracy and Capitalism and thus in the interest of the United States, but also as a victory for the Kingdom of God.

The problem with this stance of Christendom, in which the goals of the Kingdom of God are wedded to the goals of any one nation or group of nations, is that it stands at odds with the posture and stance that Jesus himself took in the world. We may mourn the loss of Christian influence in the world, but we must remember that God not only desires Christians to have influence in the world, but he desires us to influence the world by particular means. In other words, the means of our influence, the way we act in order to influence the world is part of the goal and the end of our influence. And we see this in baptism of Jesus, his anointing.

While the word “anoint” is not used anywhere in the passage, Jesus’ baptism is an anointing of the King of Israel.  In our passage from Acts Peter makes it clear: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.” If we take a closer look at Jesus’ anointing and what anointing is all about, we will see how Jesus’ stance before and in the world differs dramatically from the stance Christians have taken within Christendom.

So what is anointing, particularly within the nation of Israel? Anointing was first of all a ritualistic action that set an object apart for a sacred purpose. The objects used in the temple were anointed with oil to demonstrate that they were holy, set apart for the worship of the Lord. Anointing was then extended to people: to priests, and then to prophets and kings. People, however, were not just set apart as holy, anointing also symbolized God empowered them through the gift of his Spirit to fulfill their calling. Prophets, priests and kings could only fulfill their role as leaders of God’s people because of God’s presence in and through them. They could not just rely on their own powers, their own wisdom, or their own morality. Part of their calling was to rely on God.

This points to the first major difference between modern, secular public officials and leaders and Jesus. In submitting to John’s baptism, in submitting to God’s anointing, we see that Jesus didn’t choose his position, his calling, or his role as the Messiah, as the King of the Jews. He did not run a campaign or throw extravagant dinners to raise money from millionaires. He did not consult the polls to see how he could massage his policy stances to mesh with the opinions of the public. Jesus received his calling. He was chosen.

This extends to Jesus’ agenda. He did not come up with a political strategy, or devise a foreign policy, or develop a plan to reinvigorate the economy. His agenda was given to him. He was chosen by God to fulfill God’s mission. In his anointing Jesus doesn’t make promises, he receives them. God says to him, “You are my Son, my beloved,” and he receives the Holy Spirit so that he may rely on the power of God.

So Jesus’ stance at the very outset of his ministry is one of humility. His anointing demonstrates that Jesus receives his mission in humility. He does not seek power or position for himself. He receives them from God. And so humility characterizes his whole ministry in two more ways: He executes his mission in humility, and the object of his mission is to the humble.  

While at times Jesus had some pretty harsh words for the religious and political leaders of Israel, he used power in his ministry in very limited ways. He never operated in any way to gain power for himself, but he used the power given him by the Holy Spirit to demonstrate the presence of God’s kingdom in his person, a kingdom of healing, justice, and freedom from spiritual and physical oppression. Matthew writes in chapter 12, “Many followed him, and he healed their sick, warning them not to tell who he was. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the Prophet Isaiah.” He then quotes today’s passage from Isaiah 42: “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry out, no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope,” (42:2-3).

In secular politics people wield power in order to garner more power, to safeguard their power, and to force their agenda upon others, or perhaps to negotiate a compromise. Jesus only uses power in order to heal people from the physical oppression of sickness and disabilities; to free people from the spiritual oppression of idolatry, sin, and evil spirits; to liberate people from the social oppression of racism and bigotry; and to point toward the political and economic justice of the Kingdom of God.

The means by which Jesus fulfills his mission is thus just as important as the end of the missions itself. The means, in fact, the way Jesus lives in faithfulness, in righteousness, and love, is part of the end of his mission. He intends not only to free humanity from all forms of oppression, but to lead them into a new way of living in a right relationship with God, humanity, and the creation. The main object of his mission is therefore also characterized by humility for it is a mission to the humble.

Again, while Jesus frequently addresses those in power, his ministry is mainly to and for the weak, the poor, and the oppressed. And when he does address the rich and powerful, it is to call them to join him in his ministry to the weak, the poor, and the oppressed. Again, Jesus fulfills the words of Isaiah, “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant tor the people and a light to the Gentiles, to open the eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon all those who sit in darkness.” Jesus received and executes his mission in humility to the humble.

 When Jesus comes to John to be baptized, he shocks John with his humility. “I need to be baptized by you,” John objects, “and do you come to me?” (3:14). John knows that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the King of Israel. John recognizes that Jesus is greater than he. But what John doesn’t know, what has not been revealed to him or the world yet, is that Jesus is not just the Messiah, he is God himself. He is the Word made flesh. In Philippians Paul quotes an early Christian hymn that notes Jesus’ humility: Jesus “Being in the very nature God … made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” But even as God made flesh, Jesus didn’t act as the most powerful human being that he was. He continued to act in humility receiving his mission in humility from God, depending on God in humility for his power, only using his power in humble ways that were congruent with that mission, and thus pursing God’s mission to the humble of the world.

Those of us who have been baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have been baptized into the same spirit, a spirit of humility. We are not to set our own agenda; we are to enter in humility into God’s mission as he calls us. We are not to use power in order to gain more power, hold on to power, or to force others to our way; we are to use the power given to us by the Holy Spirit in humility to bear witness to the spiritual, physical and social freedom coming in God’s Kingdom. We do so not out of the strength of our own promises or dedication, but based on the promises God makes to us. For in our baptism God says to us, you are my child, my beloved. May we live out our baptism so that when we meet Jesus face to face we may hear him say, “With you I am well pleased.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

God of grace and glory, you call us with the small voice of your Holy Spirit to be your people, faithful and righteous. As your beloved Son embraced his mission in the waters of baptism, inspires us with the presence of your Spirit to join in his transforming work. We ask this in the name of our Savior, Lord, and King, Jesus the Anointed One. Amen.


[i] Sarah Pullam Ballay, “How nostalgia for white Christian America drove so many Americans to vote for Trump” Washington Post (January 5, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/how-nostalgia-for-white-christian-america-drove-so-many-americans-to-vote-for-trump/2017/01/04/4ef6d686-b033-11e6-be1c-8cec35b1ad25_story.html?utm_term=.8d8defe47e73&wpisrc=nl_most-draw4&wpmm=1.

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December 25, 2016 The Word Made Flesh
(John 1:1-14) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Have you ever heard anyone say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me?” Maybe you have said that. We say “Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” when someone makes fun of us, or calls us a name, right? We say it to try to make us feel better after someone has hurt us.

We say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” but I don’t think it is true. Do you think it is true? Has anyone ever hurt you with the words that they have said? I know that I have been hurt by words people have said. That’s because words can be powerful things.

But if words are powerful and can sometimes hurt us, words can also do good things, can’t they? When someone says something kind about you, that makes you feel good, doesn’t it? When your mom or dad tells you that they love you, that makes you feel safe. Words are powerful things and so they can do very good things.

We believe that in the beginning, before there was a world, when there was just God, we believe that God spoke and made the world come into being. He just said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. You see if our words are powerful enough to hurt others and to make others feel good, just imagine how powerful God’s word is. Just imagine what good things God can do by just speaking.

This morning is Christmas Day. Who can tell me what we celebrate on Christmas? That Jesus was born. Well in the Gospel of John, John calls Jesus the Word. He says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. … Through him all things were made.” And then John writes, “The Word became human and lived among us.” Well, if Jesus was God’s Word made human, what do you think God said to us when Jesus was born? I think he said, “I love you.” So today we celebrate that God was born a human being. Today we celebrate that God said to us in Jesus, “I love you.”[End]

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“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind” (John 1:1-4).

There are those in this world who believe that there is nothing that exists except that which is material, or at least has a basis in the material world. They believe that all that exists can be studied, measured, and quantified by humans, or at least possibly so. There is no transcendence. There is no such thing as spirit. If there is a soul, it is found merely in the electrical impulses of our brains. I suspect this belief has to do with our desire to have control over things, as I talked about last night.

The prologue to the Gospel of John challenges such a belief in materialism. It proclaims that before there was anything material, there was God, and there was the Word. According to the Gospel of John, speech, language, and so thought are more fundamental to reality than that which is physical. In his book, Hearing God, Dallas Willard argues that this is something we experience every day for ourselves.[1] Before we do some things, we plan them out. We think about them. Before we make something, we form a picture of it in our heads. Even though our thoughts may be conveyed through electrical impulses in our brains, that does not mean that they are only electrical impulses, for something must have caused those electrical impulses.

We also experience something of this phenomenon with the words that we speak. Words are sort of pictures, or representations of our thoughts which can exist totally in our thoughts. When we speak, words become physical in some sense. We speak and cause sound vibrations to move from here to there. But I can drop a book and do the same. With words there is something more than just sound. With words there is context, there is meaning, there is intent. There is something more than just the physical vibrations of sound. Granted, sometimes our speech is not much more than a grunt, and some people’s speech has little meaning, but most of the time we speak there is context, meaning and intent. And so with words we convey something. We impart something. We invest ourselves in our words, and so our words have power.

We say “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” be we know it is a lie. Words do hurt because through words people tell us that we are less than them, that we are useless, that we are worthless. Through words people may invest their scorn, their ridicule, and their hatred. They may invest their grandiosity over against our feebleness, their worth over against our worthlessness.

Words have power because they are fundamental to reality. It is through words that laws are made and rulers rule. When a tyrant rules only through brute material force, everyone knows that their rule is limited. Their rule does not extend beyond the material. Their rule does not extend beyond mere physical compliance.. Their actions and their words create a reality of fear and submission, but such a tyrant does not rule in the hearts of their subjects. A just ruler, however, invests their own goodness, justice, mercy and wisdom in the words they use to rule. And a good ruler creates a reality of fairness, of shalom, and of justice and so they engender trust and willing compliance. They therefore rule in the hearts of their subjects.

It is a wonder, but perhaps not too surprising, that when God wanted to reveal himself fully to his world, he should do so in this way: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” In Jesus God totally invests himself. In Jesus God enters our context with meaning and intent.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews puts it this way, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (1:3) In the Gospel of John we read, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14).

So if in Jesus God enters into our context with meaning and intent, what is the context? The evangelist says, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. … He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (1:5,11). And, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but humanity loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (3:19-20). The context into which God speaks his Word is the darkness of sin and evil.

What is the meaning? “When John saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’” (1:36). “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (3:16). “I am the vine, you are the branches. If a person remains in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit. … As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. … Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:5,9,13). “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us (1 John 4:10). If the context is the darkness of our sin, the meaning of God’s Word is love.

And what is the intent?. “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). ). “In him was life, and that life was the light of humankind.” “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (1:4,11-12) “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever should believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (3:16-17) “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” In Jesus God spoke into the darkness of our sin and into the evil in the world saying, “I love you, I love my creation,” in order to save us from our sins and to bring us into the light of abundant life. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Almighty God, you have filled us with the light of your Word who became flesh and lived among us. Let the light of your love and your grace shine in all that we do so that through us your Word may be continually spoken to heal your broken world and to redeem all your people. We pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen.

 



[1] Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 155 ff.

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December 24, 2016 Walking in the Light of the Lord
(Luke 1:28-33; 2:1-7) There is no audio for this sermon.

Have you ever been camping and had to make your way down a dark path in the middle of the night? Of course it helps to have some light and there are usually two choices when you are camping. You can a lantern, which is something like the Advent Candles here. With a lantern you can see a few feet ahead of you and some to your side and behind you. Or you can use a flashlight. With a flashlight you can see further ahead. You can direct it to where you want to see. It is no wonder that I see more people using flashlights than lanterns while camping. We like to be in control.

The future is one area in life in which we have very little control.  So while Gabriel’s message confused and amazed Mary, I wonder if she started feeling like she had won the lottery. He had given her a bit of a glimpse into the future. Her son, the angel said, was going to become King of Israel! Mary was engaged to Joseph, a carpenter. She looked forward to a non-descript life in the Gentile town of Nazareth married to a day laborer. She could probably expect a decent life, but there would be hardships. Who knows how long the building spree would last in Nazareth? How long would Joseph’s skills be in demand? Maybe they would have to move further away from family and friends so he could find work.

But now it looked like Jerusalem might be her new home. Where else would the King of Israel live? And what a home it would be. Maybe her son wouldn’t be as ostentatious as King Herod who had not just one palace in Jerusalem but one in Caesarea, one in Herodium, and one in the wilderness at Masada. “I,” thought Mary, “would be content with just one palace in Jerusalem.”

Of course Mary was in for quite a different life. Nine months later she finds herself traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem with her new husband, Joseph, who married her even though she had become pregnant. He too had been visited by an angel, and so they both made the trip to Bethlehem in something of a daze. Of course no palace awaited them in Bethlehem, only the lower floor of some distant relative’s house where they shared their sleeping quarters with the animals.

While giving birth to a child in the midst of sheep and goats was bad enough, worse was yet to come. After some strange men from the east came and gave them amazing gifts, Joseph had another dream warning him that Herod wanted to kill their child. So they packed everything they could and made their way to Egypt

Over the years Mary must have wondered what would become of the words the angel had said to her. Would they come true? Did she just imagine the angel? But Joseph was visited by an angel too.  But then her cousin’s son, John, began preaching in the wilderness. People were saying he was a sign that the Messiah was coming. And when Jesus went to hear John, she began to wonder if things would finally begin to change. She wondered how Jesus would become King. What would he do about the Roman governor in Jerusalem? What would he do about the Romans?

Little did she know that Jesus would fulfill the angel’s words by preaching good news to the poor, healing the sick, and casting out demons. Little did she know that he would earn himself the ire of the religious authorities in Jerusalem. Little did she know that they would betray him to the Romans, trump up charges against him, and have him crucified while they mocked him as “the King of the Jews.” While Gabriel told Mary something of the future, it certainly didn’t pan out the way Mary might have thought it would.

We would certainly like it if God were to speak to us in such a way that we could see the way ahead of us clearly. We would like to be able to turn to God and have certainty about what we should do in life, which choices we should make, to know what is right and what is wrong, who to vote for in an election, and how things are going to turn out if the person we didn’t vote for wins. But God has never done that for anyone.

He told Mary and Joseph what they needed to know, but not much else. He gave Mary a glimpse of the future, but that future was fulfilled in ways she never imagined. And that has been how God has always worked with his servants. God called Abraham and told him to go to a country he would show him. He didn’t give him a map. He didn’t give him a final destination. God told Moses to lead his people up out of Egypt and into the desert of Sinai. Moses knew the final destination would be the land of Canaan, but God led them in and around and through the desert, not straight to Canaan. He showed them the way with a cloud by day and at night a pillar of fire that was more like a lantern than a flashlight. Moses couldn’t point toward where they were going next, for even though he led them, he didn’t even know where or when they were going next.

I once asked an agnostic friend of mine what it would take for her to believe in God. She said, “A burning bush.” You see, we want certainty in our knowledge and our beliefs. We want to be 100% sure. The trouble is that when we become so sure of a thing, we tend to think we have become masters over that thing. Religion is a perfect case in point. When we think we have God all figured out, when we are 100% sure in our beliefs about God, then we tend to think we have mastered “religion,” and “mastered” God, in a sense. But then we start to wield religion and God as a weapon against others. We start to use our mastery as a means to judge others and tell them what to do.

But when the angel told Mary about her future, and about the future of her son, and the future of her people Israel, there was much left out. There was still a lot of mystery as to “how will this be?” as Mary asks. And even the answer Gabriel gives Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” probably generated more questions than answers for Mary. In the end it left her with the option to trust or not to trust. She could either walk away or walk ahead. She chose to submit, to trust, and to walk ahead with her questions left unanswered. “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

This evening we celebrate the fulfillment of the angel’s word - the birth of Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, Immanuel, God with us. You would think that with such a concrete manifestation of God, with such a direct revelation of our Creator and Redeemer, we might get some directions in life that were a bit more concrete. But we get nothing of the sort. Jesus lived for a time among us. He gathered disciples and taught them how to live in faithfulness to God. He cured the sick, cast out demons, and ate with sinners. He showed them how to die in faithfulness to God saying, “Not my will but yours be done.” In short, he showed them how to be faithful witnesses of God and his ways. He showed them how to walk not by sight, not with full knowledge and certainty, but by faith, for even Jesus had to spend time in prayer so as to be led by the Holy Spirit.

And so this night God invites us to walk in the light of Christ. To walk in the light of Christ is to entrust ourselves to Jesus. It is to walk in the light he casts upon our path, a few steps at a time, a light that is more like a lantern than a flashlight. We can’t control what or how far ahead we can see. We can’t direct the light. But we can follow a trustworthy guide. We can follow the one who came to be one with us, who lived with us, suffered with us, and died for us. We can follow him in faith for he led the way for us through life, through death, and into everlasting life. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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December 18, 2016 The Judge of Humanity: All Is Calm
(Isaiah 7:3-16; Matthew 1:18-25) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] When Evan and Elise were about your age, they loved to play hide-and-seek with their mom and me. In our former house we had a shower in the bathroom on the first floor, and that was one of my favorite places to hide. For some reason Evan and Elise didn’t think to look in there for a long time.  Do you like to play hide and seek? Maybe you play it with your parents, or your brother or sister, or your friends. Do you have a favorite hiding place?

I wonder why we like playing hide and seek so much. Part of the fun of playing hide and seek is that we try to outsmart the person who is “it.” If we can find a place to hide where they can’t find us then we have won because we outsmarted them. It is fun to win sometimes, but I think we also like to play hide and seek because we like to be found. We like others to look for us. I think it sort of makes us feel wanted. And then when they find us, we like that too because they are happy that they found us, and that makes us feel good.

Do you remember the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? Do you remember how they disobeyed God and ate of the fruit of the tree which God told them not to? Do you remember what they did after they ate the fruit and then heard God walking in the garden? They ran and hid, didn’t they.

I think the story of Adam and Eve is sort of like a game of hide and seek. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree they weren’t supposed to eat, they sort of acted as if they were smarter than God. When we disobey God, it is sort of like telling God that we know better than him. It is sort of like hiding from God. But the good news is that God loves us so much that he comes to us and he finds us.

In the Gospel of Matthew an angel of God tells Joseph that Mary is going to have a baby. He tells Joseph to name the baby Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins.” You see, the name Jesus means “God saves.” Matthew then says, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet, “‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us.’)” You see even though we have sinned, even though we have tried to hide from God, he comes to find us. He sends Jesus who is Immanuel, God with us, to save us from our sins, for his name is Jesus, God saves. We play hide and seek because we like to be found. But what is even better is knowing that God loves us so much that he has come to find us by sending Jesus to be with us. [End]

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I have always been a bit ambivalent about the song “Silent Night.” Yes, it is beautiful. Yes, it captures the wonder and awe of the birth of Jesus. But doesn’t it paint a false picture of what really happened? Was everything silent the night Jesus was born? I have attended a couple of births, and they are anything but silent. Moreover, I know Roxann would have been anything but calm if she had to give birth in a room accompanied by sheep and goats and chickens.

I think the second verse of Silent Night comes a bit closer to reality. “Shepherds quake at the sight / Glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing: ‘Alleluia!’” Yes, I think any of us would shake and quake in our boots if an angel were to appear before us and address us. Let alone a whole host of angels. But what is silent about a host of angels praising God? My guess is that the shepherds had never heard anything so loud and thrilling. Definitely not silent and calm.

The larger context of Jesus’ birth was also anything but calm and silent. Joseph found himself in quite a predicament. His fiancé is pregnant. Her reputation as a righteous woman will forever be cast into the shadows. But he obeys the angel sent to him and marries her. He takes on the shame and the disgrace surrounding her pregnancy. Everyone will wonder, “Was it Joseph who was responsible?” “Is he not as righteous as he pretends to be?” “Or, is he just spineless? He has married this woman even though someone else is the father of her child. What a putz!”

The angel challenges Joseph to trust in God. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (1:20-21). Sometimes trusting in God means facing the turmoil of inner doubts and fears, and the ridicule of the community.

While Joseph faced his own personal trial of faith, Matthew reminds us that the nation of Israel, or rather, the story of the nation of Israel has been this same struggle, this same trial of faith. Will Israel put their faith in God, or in someone or something else? Matthew tells us that “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (22-23).

Matthew alludes to the time of Ahaz, King of Judah. In those days the king of Aram, which is present day Syria, and the king of Israel, or Samaria, the northing kingdom, joined together and marched against Judah, the southern kingdom. But the Lord sends his prophet Isaiah to Ahaz saying, “Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood.”  He assures Ahaz that their plans “will not take place, it will not happen”. He tells him that the kings who threaten him are only men –“The head of Damascus is only [king] Rezin. … The head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son.” These kings and their threats will not last.  Isaiah urges Ahaz not to lose faith in the Lord God of Israel. “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”

Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for a sign from God to assure him of what he has said. Ahaz feigns piety and refuses, saying he would never put the Lord to the test. So Isaiah gives him a sign anyway. “The young maiden will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel [God with us] … before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid to waste.” Isaiah prophecies that Assyria will wipe out Aram and Israel, but God will protect Judah for Immanuel, “God is with us.”

In this way Matthew sets up a contrast between Joseph and Ahaz. After Joseph hears the angel’s words, “Joseph did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” Ahaz, however, sent messengers to the king of Assyria saying, “‘I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and the king of Israel who are attacking me.’ Ahaz took the silver and gold found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria.” While Joseph trusted God, Ahaz trusted the power of Assyria.

By reminding us of Ahaz, Matthew also set ups a contrast between Joseph and the current rulers of Israel. In chapter 2 Matthew tells how Magi from the east come to King Herod. They ask him, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?” Herod sends for the religious scholars who say that the prophets had proclaimed that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. But do the religious leaders then go with the Magi to seek out the Messiah? Does King Herod provide them a royal escort so that he can join the Magi in paying homage to this new king? No, the religious scholars return to their books, bemused that a group of Gentile astrologists would think that God would reveal anything about the Messiah to them, and Herod plots to kill this child, just in case there is anything to this crazy story. While the Magi come to worship the Messiah in faith, the rulers of Israel turn away.

Joseph, however remains at the center of Matthew’s story. Although Mary’s pregnancy threatens disgrace, Joseph remains faithful and obedient to God. And when God warns Joseph that Herod intends to kill the child, he gathers up Mary and the baby, and flees to Egypt. He trusts that God with us, and that God will save.

And while Matthew tells Joseph’s story, the story of one individual who faces a trial of faith, who must either walk away from disgrace and danger, or place his faith in God, Matthew situates this story within the history of the nation of Israel. You see, Matthew begins his story with the long list of names. He begins his story by recounting Joseph’s ancestors. He tells us that there were 14 generations from Abraham to King David. And 14 generations from David to the exile, and 14 generations from the exile to Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

When biblical authors make a big deal about numbers, it is usually fairly significant. So I started wondering, what is significant about 14? Matthew keeps repeating that number 14 generations. That seemed odd. 14 is not normally a significant number. 3, 40, 7 and 10, and then multiples of 10 are the most common “significant” numbers. But 14 is 2 times 7. And Matthew lists 3 groups of 14 generations, which is also 6 sets of 7 generations. Jesus is therefore the first born of the seventh set of generations. This, then is a very significant birth. Seven stands for wholeness and shalom for the seventh day was made holy. In this Jesus things will be made right and whole again for the nation of Israel and all God’s people.

So let’s look again at the list of generations. Notice that the first set of 14 generations begins with Abraham and ends with David. Aside from Moses, these are the two greatest heroes of faithfulness. While each had their moments, in the end, they were judged as being faithful to God. The second set of 14 generations then covers the era of the kings of Israel and then Judah. This was a time of declining faithfulness as exhibited by King Ahaz. This set ends not in faithfulness, but in faithlessness, with the nation of Judah being sent into exile. The third set of generations, then covers the time after the exile. But Matthew leaves the question open, has the exile really ended? The people were sent into exile because they failed to trust in God. Instead they put their trust in foreign powers like Assyria, and they worshipped other Gods, like the Baals. But then a son is born to Mary, Joseph’s wife, and they name him Jesus, God saves, for the angel said he would save God’s people from their sins.

When we read that Joseph is to name the baby Jesus because he will save God’s people from their sins, what sins do you think of? We probably think of everyday sins that we all commit. Maybe we told a white lie to someone. Maybe we got angry with someone and said something mean. Maybe we know someone who is having an affair. Perhaps we even think of more serious sins like theft and murder. But our greatest sin is more subtle and more fundamental. Our greatest sin is to fail to trust in God. Our greatest sin is to turn away from God and to trust in someone or something else. When we fail to put our trust in God, we are separating ourselves from him. We are saying we don’t need or want God. We hide from God.

The story of Israel, however, is the story of humanity. When we run and hide from God, when we put our trust and faith in someone or something else, God keeps coming to find us. As we have seen over the course of Lent, he comes as our judge to rule the nations, he comes as a judge to make things right for the poor. He comes to judge the earth and make the whole world fruitful again. And so in Jesus he comes as the judge of all humanity for Immanuel, God is with us to save us from our sins.

And so, whether we face a personal trial such as Joseph, or whether we face a national crisis like Ahaz, we can hear the angel and God’s prophet say to us, “keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart. God is with us. God reigns over the nations. He reigns over creation. He reigns over rich and poor alike. He comes to save. Do not be afraid. Trust in God. All is calm for Immanuel, God is with us.  In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. By thine own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone, by thine all sufficient merit raise us to thy glorious throne.” Amen.

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December 11, 2016 The Judge of the Earth: Every Heart Prepare Him Room
(Isaiah 35) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Good morning, this morning I have a couple of pictures to show you, and some questions to ask you about them. So what can you tell me about the place where the lower picture was taken? (Pictures are cropped so you can’t see the mountain in the background.) A desert. Dry. No water. No animals. Lifeless. And what about the picture on the top? Blooming flowers. A prairie? Lots of water and animals. Full of life. Now what would you say if I told you that these pictures are pictures of the same place (reveals the top of both pictures).

That is the thing about deserts. They are very dry and can go for long periods of time without any rain. But God made the plants and animals that live in the desert in such a way that they are able to live there. Some of the plants have roots that go way, way down into the ground where they can get water. Others sort of sleep for most of the year and then spring to life and make new seeds in the few weeks during the spring when there is enough water. The seeds they make are very durable and only start growing when there is lots of water available. Deserts are truly amazing places. But what is truly amazing is that a desert can go from looking like this to like this within a few hours after a big rain storm.

The prophet Isaiah probably saw such a sight because the land of Israel is surrounded by deserts. This morning we read from Isaiah where he talks about God coming to save his people. He writes: The desert and the parched land will be glad; the desert will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus (that’s a kind of flower), it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.”  What Isaiah seems to be saying is that when God comes to save his people, even the land will be saved. The desert, a place that seems lifeless, will burst forth into life.

In the psalm I just read, the natural world comes alive and rejoices too. The sea makes all kinds of noise. The rivers clap their hands. The mountains sing for joy. They join God’s people in praising God when he comes to save them.

I think that the writer of the psalm and Isaiah saw some really amazing things in nature. I think they have seen a desert spring from a lifeless and empty place to a field of blooming flowers after a big rainfall. Have you ever seen something really beautiful and amazing in nature? Have you ever been awake at night when you were far out in the country and you could see all the stars? Have you ever seen snowcapped mountains? This summer we went to California and saw some of the giant redwood trees, some of the tallest trees in the world. I was just amazed at their beauty.

When we see things like that, it is sort of like seeing the rivers clap their hands, or the mountains lift up their voices in praise to God. When we see the beauty and the amazing sights of nature, we are reminded that God is just an amazing God. We are reminded that he made all of this. We are reminded that everything that lives and everything that is comes from God. And so we can believe that God will save us.

Christmas is another time when we can remember something amazing and therefore believe that God will save us. At Christmas we remember the story of when Jesus was born. We remember that God enabled Mary to have a baby even though she wasn’t married to Joseph yet. God was able to create life where life should have been impossible. And we remember that in Jesus God, who created this whole amazing world, became human. And so we can trust that this baby Jesus truly came to save us. He came to bring life into the places of our lives where things are dying. He came to forgive our sins. He came and healed those who were sick. It is just like Isaiah said, “then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a dear, and the mute tongue sing for joy.

So during the rest of this service we are going to read the story of Jesus’ birth. Do you think you can listen to the story? And then we can all join with the rivers clapping their hands and the mountains singing to God in praise, because he comes to save his people. [end children’s sermon]

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Over the course of these Advent weeks, we have been looking at how the Old Testament Prophets saw the coming Messiah as a coming judge: A judge, however, who comes not just to condemn those who do wrong, but a judge who makes wise decisions and rules the nations so that they live in peace and harmony; a judge who comes to set things right, particularly for the poor and oppressed of the world.

Both the psalmist and Isaiah depict the natural world as witnesses to God’s coming and saving his people Israel. Isaiah depicts the desert bursting forth into life as a sign that when God comes to save his people, the creation itself will flourish with abundance. When God comes to save, he comes to bring life and life in abundance. The Psalmist urges the sea and the rives and the mountains to praise the coming of this saving God, “for he comes to judge the earth.” He comes to set all things right. He comes even to set things right in the natural world, to make the deserts bloom.

In the words of Isaac Watts, “No more let sin and sorrow grow nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” If the curse of human sin infected even the physical world so that God told Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17), then God’s salvation of humankind will include the earth as well. He will come to judge the earth and make things right within the realm of nature “far as the curse is found.”

The Psalmist enjoins the sea and the rivers and the mountains to join with humanity in praise of God. Isaac Watts calls upon every heart to prepare him room. So how do we enable our hearts to prepare him room? Let me suggest that wonder and amazement are the keys to opening our hearts to the coming salvation of God. We can look at the creation in all its beauty, in all its terrifying awe. We can ponder how we are but one small planet filled with beauty within a solar system that is just one of billions in our galaxy which is just one of billions of galaxies within the universe. Amazed by the beauty, complexity and sheer size of the creation, we can know that the God who created this world is the same God who comes to save it and all people. And we can listen to the story. We can be amazed that this God of creation, the God who made all those galaxies, and the God who knit Micah together in his mother’s womb, came down to us and took on human flesh and so proved the glories of his righteousness, and the wonders of his love. Friends, let every heart prepare him room. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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December 4, 2016 A Thrill of Hope: The Judge of the Poor
(Isaiah 11:1-9; Psalm 72) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] I would like you to help me today. And I would like the adults to help me too, if you know what I mean. Can you help me today? With your help, we are going to test the rest of the congregation, OK? Now I am going to show a picture to one side of the church. Then I am going to show the same picture to the other side of the church. Then I am going to ask them at the same time to say what the picture is. Then I will show it to you, and you will decide who is right. OK?

So first I am going to show this side, but don’t say anything. OK? Now I am going to show this side, but don’t say anything. OK?  Now (hides the picture). On the count of three, I want each side to say what the picture is of. One, two, three: (some will say horse, and others a frog).  So, those on my left side think it is a horse. And those on my right side think it is a frog. How can that be? I showed them the same picture. You all know that a horse is a large mammal with long legs and a big head with ears? And you all know that a frog is a small little animal that lives in the ponds and lakes?

So, now you kids can decide who is right. Is this a picture of a horse? [turns picture] Or a frog? It depends on which way you look at it, doesn’t it. It is a horse if you look at this way, and a frog if you look at it this way.

Have you ever gotten into an argument with someone when you thought you were right and you were sure they were wrong. And so you argue and argue, but then maybe one of your parents comes along and shows you that you are both kind of right? Maybe they help you understand how the other person sees things and then you realize that you didn’t see the whole picture.

This demonstrates one of the problems we all face. Every one of us sees things and knows things only from the way that we look at them, or the way that we can look at them. What we know isn’t always the full picture. We often can only see part of the picture.

That is why it is a good thing that we have God. God sees things from all sides, and he knows all things, even the thoughts we keep secret in our minds. So it a good thing that in the end God is the one who decides what is right and what is wrong. So next time you have a disagreement with someone, maybe you should remember that part of the problem may be that you can’t see things the way your friend sees them. And if you think someone is being unfair, remember that God sees all things and he is the one who truly decides what is fair and what it not. [End]

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Isaiah prophesies the coming of the Messiah, the one who will take up David’s throne and become judge over the people. “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him - the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord (11:1-3).

That is all well and good. We certainly want our judge to be filled with wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and most of all fear of the Lord. But the next verse in Isaiah has always confused me. “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears” (3). How is anyone supposed to judge anything unless they see evidence? How can you make a decision unless you hear testimony?

If we read the next phrases, however, the meaning of this becomes clear: “but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (4).

Isaiah uses a common feature of Hebrew poetry in these phrases. Have you ever noticed that the Psalms and much of the writing in the prophets are characterized by lines that have two phrases and sometimes three. These phrases usually relate to each other in a number of ways. Sometimes the second phrase simply repeats the first, but more often the second phrase fills out and expands the meaning of the first. We see this in verse 3: the first phrase, “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,” is expanded in the second, “or decide by what he hears with his ears.”

Sometimes the second phrase forms a contrast to the first. Think of Psalm 1:6: “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. The second line extends the meaning of the first phrase by showing us the other side of the coin. This is what will happen to the righteous, but the opposite will happen to the wicked.

In our passage Isaiah uses this same device but not just within one verse, which is almost ubiquitous in Hebrew poetry, but over the course of two verses. Isaiah extends and contrasts the meaning of verse 3 in verse 4. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. Notice first the repetitions of judge in each first phrase and decide (or make decisions) in the second phrase. This alerts you to read all four of these phrases together. So instead of judging and deciding by what he sees or hears, the Messiah will judge and make decisions for the poor.

Isaiah, however, does not make the contrast explicit. The contrast is left for you to figure out. If the Messiah is to be blind and deaf on the one hand, but make decisions for the poor and needy on the other. What is the Messiah to be blind and deaf too? To rule with true justice, one must be blind to the opposite of the poor and needy, one must be blind to the influences of the rich and powerful. One must take the perspective of the poor.

The End Racism Team is reading “Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, by Drew Hart.[1] A theologian and activist, Hart is professor of theology at Messiah College. He notes how white Americans have consistently had a false understanding of justice when it comes to race throughout our history. He points out that we now look back on the age of slavery and every single one of us, or almost every single one of us, would agree that the vast majority of white people were morally wrong with regard to slavery. In 1852 the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that black Americans were not citizens of the state and would never be. Again most whites agreed with that decision. It seemed natural to them, but now we find that decision abhorrent.

Such poor moral judgement, however, was not limited to the age of slavery. In 1896 the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-1 decision in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that racial segregation was constitutional. They even argued that it promoted equality. Again most whites agreed with this decision that we now see as morally repugnant. And so, Hart argues, such bad moral judgment continued on into the 20th century. In 1946 seven out of ten white Americans believed that blacks were treated fairly in the United States. This, Hart, points out was in spite of the KKK, lynchings, and the Jim Crow laws.

Such poor moral judgment over and over again in the past, Hart concludes, should alert us to the high probability that it still continues today. Whites have consistently discounted the claims of injustice made by blacks. They have consistently believed that the system was good and just when it was thoroughly racists and oppressive. We should therefore be suspicious of whites who claim objectivity and become offended by the Black Lives Matter movement. Even worse, many claim not only that there is no epidemic of violence against blacks, but that the most prevalent form of racism today is reverse racism. Our history demonstrates that we who are white do not have the same perspective as blacks. We are often blind to the injustices within the system. We are not objective observes, but we are partial and we are benefactors of a racist society. We need to listen carefully to black America, if not defer to them, when they make claims of racism.

The truth of the matter is that the norms of society and so the norms of justice are set by those with power. True justice must therefore be blind and deaf to the influences of the powerful. Isaiah’s Messiah will therefore judge the needy with righteousness and it will be just when he makes decisions for the poor. I have pointed out many times in my sermons that Biblical justice sets the standard by looking at those who fall through the cracks of society. In the patriarchal society of Israel, in which land and money and power were located in the male head of the household, the prophets continually ask, “How are the widows, orphans, and foreigners fairing?”  How are those doing who have lost or never had a connection to the locus of power and wealth within society? If society as a whole is not caring for such people, or worse, if the powerful are abusing the vulnerability of such people, than such a society is not a just society. Biblical justice takes the perspective of those who are not a part of the dominant culture. It is blind to the influences of the rich and powerful. It takes the perspective of the oppressed.

The good news is that this is good for us all. If you seek justice for those who fall outside of the dominant culture and if you establish justice for those who don’t have access to the sources of power and wealth, then the whole society benefits. In Psalm 72 the psalmist lifts up a prayer to God for the King of Israel, that he might “Judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.” If he does so, the psalmist knows that this will lead to the flourishing of the whole society. “May the mountains bring prosperity to the people, the hills the fruit of righteousness. May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor.” If a society seeks justice and mercy for those who fall through the cracks, then justice will be available to the whole of society and the whole of society will flourish.

It is also good news that God’s approach to social justice also applies to his approach to moral justice. If God’s social justice seeks to raise up the poor, the needy and the oppressed in society, so too his moral justice seeks to shower grace upon those who are most in need of grace. When John the Baptist comes proclaiming the good news of the coming kingdom of God, people from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of Jordan come streaming out to him. You can imagine that folks from all walks of life came out, just like those who followed Jesus – ordinary men and women, fishermen and bakers, but then also the sinners, the prostitutes and the tax-collectors – they all came and confessed their sins and were baptized by John in the Jordan river.

Matthew continues in verse 7, “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and the Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers. Who told you to flee the coming wrath?’” When John sees the religious leaders, those who counted themselves as righteous, those who often profited from the temple system, those who set up rules and regulations that ordinary folk couldn’t handle, those who were bound and determined to set up fences to keep certain people out, he calls them a brood of vipers. He warns them of the coming wrath that will be for the likes of them. But then he offers them grace, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” he tells them. God’s grace is for your too. Repent and begin living into the coming kingdom.

In the carol, “O Holy Night,” we sing, “A thrill of hope – the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” In the third stanza we see that that new and glorious morn is a society filled with justice and peace: “Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, And in His name all oppression shall cease.” We sense a thrill of hope when God promises to liberate the oppressed. But we also sense a thrill of hope when God’s grace is made available to the most egregious of sinners. For if God’s grace is available even to those who take advantage of the poor and the vulnerable, it is open to us all.

Merciful God, you sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.


[1] Drew Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016) see pages 79-83.

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November 27, 2016 The Judge of the Nations: Joyful all Ye Nations Rise
(Isaiah 2; Mathew 24:36-44) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Do you know what day it is today? Do you know what is special about this Sunday? It is the first Sunday of Advent? Do you know what Advent is? It is the four weeks before Christmas. Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” It is the four weeks before we celebrate the first time Jesus came to earth when he was born. So Advent is a time of preparation. It is a time where we keep saying, Jesus is coming, so let’s get ready. We prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of Jesus. And we also prepare our hearts for when Jesus will come back, for what we call his second coming.

So I was wondering, since this is a special Sunday, if I could take a picture of us. Can I sit down here and take a picture of us?

Now let me ask you, did that in any way help us prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus? Did that in any way help us prepare for when Jesus will come back? No. Is it generally a good idea to take a picture like that during a worship service? No. It was kind of unnecessary, wasn’t it? In fact, maybe it was a bit distracting.

We do a lot of things to prepare to celebrate Christmas. We decorate our houses. We make lots of different foods like cookies and candies. Some people are starting to rehearse singing and playing songs for our special Lessons & Carols service that we are going to have in a couple of weeks. We buy presents for people to open on Christmas Day (or maybe some other day because we don’t see them on Christmas Day).

A lot of those things we do are good and fun, and they help us prepare to celebrate Christmas. But sometimes we can do things that aren’t really necessary for celebrating Christmas. And sometimes we can get so caught up in doing so many things that we get distracted and we forget what Christmas is all about. We begin to think that Christmas is all about decorations and cookies and presents and taking pictures. We forget that Christmas is about celebrating that Jesus was born to save us and the world from our sins. We forget that we are now waiting and hoping for Jesus to come again to save us and the world from all the bad things we do to each other.

So what do you think are some of the ways we can celebrate Advent? How could we prepare our hearts to celebrate Christmas and to wait for Jesus to come back again?  Read the Bible. Pray. Sing hymns and carols and praise songs. Worship God as a church, or as families, or even by yourself. [End]

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So did everyone have a wonderful Thanksgiving? What did you have for your Thanksgiving dinner? All the usual? Turkey, potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green beans, sweet potatoes? And what did you have for desert? We had pumpkin pie and apple pie.

We tend to do a lot of eating over the holidays. That isn’t surprising. It is what people in every culture do on almost every holiday. We eat. But isn’t it a bit ironic that in our first Advent Gospel lesson Jesus says, “For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be,” Jesus warns us, “at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24: 37-39). Jesus goes on to say how people will be going about their everyday lives – men working in the field, women grinding grain with a mill – when the Son of Man comes, and one will be taken and another left. No one knows when the Son of Man will return, so many will be taken unawares.

During the Holiday season we can get easily caught up in holiday activities. Advent is supposed to be for us Christians a time of preparation. It should be a time for us to slow down a bit so that we have more time to reflect upon our relationship with God, so that we have more time to spend in prayer, so that we have more time to read the Bible. But instead, we march along more to the beat of our culture than to the needs of our hearts and souls. Like everyone else we become more busy and frantic during the weeks before Christmas – we have so many presents to buy, decorations to put up, parties to attend, papers to finish, exams to take, papers and exams to grade. Who has time to slow down? Who has time for reflection? Who has time for prayer?

Of course this season just puts the rest of our lives into sharper focus. It isn’t as though we have such time before Advent. We live in a culture that thrives on being busy. When someone asks you how you are doing, it is almost shameful to not give a big sigh and say, “Busy.” We also live in a culture that thrives on distractions. What is a smart phone really but a constant source of distraction? I read the other day that people check their smart phones around 150 times a day. That is about once every 6 minutes that we are awake. Jesus warns the people during his day that people would be caught unawares at his return because they were just busy doing everyday things – eating, drinking, marrying, working. Perhaps some of us will be caught unawares because we are posting a selfie on snapchat.

So Jesus warns his disciples and us to “keep watch.” Always be alert and ready, for no one knows when the Day of the Lord will be. No one knows when the Son of Man will return, but Jesus’ point is that his disciples will be living in the “last days.” He has been preaching all along that the kingdom is near.  Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection were the inauguration of the Kingdom. We are therefore living in that age too. We too are in the last days. The Kingdom is near. Keep watch!

And so Isaiah’s prophecy is not about some future time. Or, rather, I should say Isaiah’s prophecy is not only about some future time. In chapter 2:2 Isaiah says, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains and it will be exalted above the hills and all nations will stream to it.  Many people will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways so that we may walk in his paths.’”

In our epistle text for next week, in Romans 15, Paul is pretty clear that the Old Testament prophecies regarding the Gentiles are coming to fulfillment in the church. He writes, “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy.”  In other words, in Jesus God fulfilled his promises he made to Abraham so that Abraham and his descendants in Christ could become a blessing to the Gentiles, so that through Christ the Gentiles could come to God to worship and glorify God.

Paul is also clear in his letter to the Ephesians, that the church of Christ has become the temple of God. The temple is the place where God is present in the world through his Spirit, and so the Spirit filled church is the temple in these last days. We are therefore those Gentiles who are now streaming to the temple of God. This, my friends, is the mountain of the Lord’s temple. And we, my friends, are literally the nations – the Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese, the Taiwanese, the Indians, the Dutch, and the Americans from wherever your ancestors came from – we are the nations who are streaming to Zion.

We stream to Zion, to the Lord’s temple for God, in Christ, has become the judge of the nations. The theme of my sermons this Advent season is that Jesus, the Messiah, comes as the Judge – judge of the nations, judge of the poor, judge of the earth, and judge of humanity. We usually think of Jesus as Judge in terms only of the final judgement. We think of Jesus coming and lining people up and then putting the sheep to his right and the goats to his left. But judges do so much more than declaring people either innocent or guilty. Remember that Israel was ruled for hundreds of years by judges who not only made legal decisions, but led the nation in battle, and governed the people through Israel’s laws.

The other month I went to court to petition the court to give me guardianship over Nassi. The judge made a decision that day, but it was not that Nassi was guilty or innocent. He made a ruling that established a law that I would be Nassi’s guardian. This new law gives me certain powers and responsibilities with regards to Nassi. It affects what I will do and what Nassi can and cannot do. The judge basically made a law that shapes how Nassi and I will live.

This is the role God plays as judge in our text from Isaiah. The nations go up to Jerusalem, to the temple of God for God has become their Judge. The nations of the world stream up to God’s temple saying, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord. … He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” As the Judge of the nations, his “law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Making judicial decisions is a key aspect of being a judge for verse 4 says, “He will judge between nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.” But the result of the law going out from Jerusalem, and the people walking in God’s ways is that the nations “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” By learning God’s law and walking in his ways their lives, no our lives, will be changed. We will become people of peace.  And there is no better way to prepare for the celebration of Christmas. There is no better way to prepare for the return of Christ.

“Joyful all ye nations rise. Join the triumph of the skies.” Charles Wesley wrote Hark! The Herald Angels Sing in 1739. Originally entitled Hymn for Christmas Day it evokes the angels praising God as they announce the birth of Jesus. The hymn then invites the nations to join their praise. And so it is a call to us to praise God for in Christ Jesus he has become our King, our Judge, the Prince of Peace. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to humankind on whom his favor rests.” Amen.

Faithful God, your promises stand unshaken through all generations.
In Christ you are drawing people from every tribe, language and nation to you.
Renew us in hope,
that we may be found faithful, awake and alert,
watching for the glorious return of Jesus Christ,
our judge and savior,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

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November 20, 2016 A Strong Refuge
(Psalm 46) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Last week Saturday a bunch of people from church were here at the church. What were we all doing? Well I saw several of you here. What did you all do?  I think we picked up over 75 bags of leaves and I think Mrs. McWilliams made 5 trips to the recycle center with the trailer full of leaf bags. That was a lot of leaves. I think we had over 30 people working around the church. And we did more than just pick up the leaves. We washed the windows, cleaned out the gutters, and did some cleaning inside that doesn’t get done very often.

So I know you kids worked really hard, but do you think you could have done that all by yourself? Maybe next year we ought to just set aside a day like that and just let you kids do it all. What do you think? … I agree. You would need the help of the adults. I mean, for one thing, you can’t drive the trailer to the recycle center, can you? There are some things you just can’t do, and other things you need help doing, and other things you need adults to tell you how and what to do. Right?

Well, when it comes to our relationship with God, we are all like children, even we adults. God created us so that we could take care of his world, but we will always need God’s help. We need God to tell us how to do some things. We need God’s help to do other things. And there are other things that we can’t do at all. We just need to trust that God will do them. So will you pray with me?

[Prayer of Invocation] Almighty and gracious God, you sent your son Jesus Christ into the world to save us from our sins and to show us how to obey you. And because he obeyed you and died on the cross, you raised him up from the grave and made him King over all things. Help us to be like Jesus so that we can obey you in all things, so that we can do the work you have called us to do, and so that we can trust you to do what we cannot. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen. [End]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I wonder if anyone else has turned to Psalm 46 in the past couple of weeks.  Does anyone else feel like the earth is giving way and that the mountains are falling into the sea? Does anyone long to hear that though the seas foam and roar, there is yet “a river whose streams make glad the city of God”?  Does anyone long to hear that still, small voice that Elijah did not hear in the earthquake, or in the violent storm, or the fire, but that still, small voice that came out of the silence, the voice the psalmist hears saying “Be still, and know that I am God” ?

In many ways these past two weeks have simply brought many of the anxieties and fears of our time into sharp relief. Greg Thompson, a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and the pastor of the church the O’Gormans attended last year, argues that “The essential character of our age is that it is an age of contradiction.” [1] We have made huge advances in technology, but yet we feel more and more imprisoned by our technologies. We have created vast amounts of wealth such as the world has never seen, yet millions of people live in abject poverty. We have made huge advances in the sciences, yet we don’t seem to have the political will to curb global warming. Advances in communication have made anyone across the globe a potential “friend,” yet racism, nationalism, and religious fanaticism seems to divide us more than ever.

These contradictions throw our world if not our psyches into chaos. They dampen our hopes of making progress. Can we truly put our hopes in our political system after what we have experienced the past few months? Do we truly have faith that we can escape the ravages of global warming by inventing new technologies? For every advance we seem to make, there arises another form of violence, injustice, or catastrophe. Sometimes it seems like we are fending off disasters on all sides.

The Psalmist writes in an age when Israel seems under siege by the nations surrounding her. “Nations have raged, kingdoms fall down,” he says in verse 6.  But the psalmist could have written this psalm in about any age of the nation of Israel. Even during its glory days under King David and King Solomon, Israel was always a tiny nation stuck between the superpowers of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and then Persia. Closer by, the tiny nations surrounding Israel posed a constant threat. Sometimes they picked their own fights with Israel. Sometimes they joined with one of the superpowers against Israel.

As we often do today, the psalmist finds that metaphor is the best way to communicate the fear and terror posed by the threats against us.  In the first section vv. 1-3, the psalmist brings up primordial images of chaos: “mountains fall into the heart of the sea / The waters foam in a rage / the mountains quake when it rises up. These threats make us feel as if the world is coming undone.

The psalmist, however, urges Israel and us to place our firm hope in God.  “God is our refuge and strength. God is a strong refuge, an ever-present help in trouble.” Though the world seems to be at the mercy of the forces of chaos, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.”  The psalmist reminds us that God tamed the primordial waters of chaos and that a river, a contained and controlled source of water, flowed out of the Garden of Eden giving life to the world. The psalmist now finds that river flowing through the City of God. Later prophets will imagine that river flowing out from under the throne of God, watering the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, and flowing into the sea turning the salt water into fresh water. We need not fear the nations or any force in the universe, for “The Lord Almighty is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

Come and see what the Lord has done,” the psalmist invites us, “the desolations he has brought on the earth.” If we fear the desolations the forces of nature can wreak on us, if we fear the desolations nations at war can bring, know that God’s power does not just remain over the primordial forces of chaos. His power is not just over the wind and the waves. This God is the God of history as well as of creation. The desolations God has wrought are that “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shield with fire.”

Be still,” the Lord urges the warring nations. “Be still,” the Lord urges all the forces of nature that rage and foam. “Be still,” the Lord assures us. “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  But why can we take comfort in that? Why should this reassure us? Because “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

So where does that leave us? Are we just to hope in God? Should we just sit back and let God take care of everything? Should we not participate in politics? Should we not work for social and economic justice? Don’t worry, God has got this. Maybe we should go and join the Amish, separate ourselves from the world, and let the world be the world so that we can get on with the business of being God’s people. The psalmist says God is our strong refuge, so shouldn’t we just retreat from the world and let God protect us from its sin and evil?

Well, before we do that, let us ask what it means that God is “with us.” First, who is the “us” God is with? And second, how is God with us?

As we saw last week, Jesus earned himself multiple enemies by living a life that testified that that God was not just with Israel, but that God was with and for the weak, the poor, and the outcasts of Israel. Moreover he was even with the Samaritans and the Gentiles. One of Israel’s greatest misunderstandings was that God was with them for the sake of Israel. But God choose Israel and came to be with her so that he could be with the world through Israel.

The church has fallen prey to the same temptation over and over again throughout the ages. If we believe that God is with us for our sake over against whichever enemy we identify, we have not heard Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies. If God is with us, it is for the sake of the world and even for the sake of those who hate us and persecute us. The “us” looks hopefully forward to the time when the “us” will include all humanity.

Simply put, God is with us for the sake of the world.  But that is, in a way, how God created human beings in the first place. And so it speaks to how God is with us. God created us in his image and told us to have dominion over the creation. We were created for the purpose of exercising his authority in the world so that the creation would flourish. We were given the image of God not for our own sake, but for the sake of the world. But this also means that to put our hope in God, then, to “be still and know that the Lord is God” cannot mean that we should retreat from the world and just let God work things out.

God created us to have agency. He created us to be creative, to produce things, invent things, manage things, and care for things. We were made to be involved with the world. Acting in the market place, in the world of politics, in the academy, and in society in general is central to what it means to be human. The question is not if we ought to be involved in society, but how. And the first hint is to recognize that God was with us in the world first by creating us in his image, by investing part of himself in humanity.  

When God created humanity in his image, he put his reputation into the hands of humanity. When humans sinned, we caused God to suffer not only because he was so saddened to see us sin, but also because we spoiled his image. And some might say that God was a slow learner. In order to fix the problem, he turned to humanity again and chose Abraham and then his descendants, the people of Israel. It was their task to be the restored image bearers of God in the world which God helped them to do by giving them the Torah and by being present with them in their midst. And notice that God does not choose the powerful. He chooses a nation of slaves. He chooses not the first-born, but the second or the eighth in the case of David. When God comes to be with humanity he stakes his reputation with humanity and he comes to the lowly.

 But, to no one’s surprise, and particularly not to God’s surprise, humanity continued to fail. Although faithful in the end, Abraham failed a couple of times. Jacob was no saint. Moses had his issues. The history of Israel is a history of faithfulness and faithlessness, a faithlessness that is demonstrated particularly through the leadership of their kings, until a true King is born in Bethlehem. 

In our Gospel lesson, then, we see God-with-us revealed in all his glory. God is with us in Jesus as he asks God the Father to forgive those who have nailed his hands into the wood. God is with us in Jesus as he receives the ridicule of the thief hanging next to him. God is with us as the King of the Jews who submits his body to the powers of Rome and the Jewish leaders. God is with us as Jesus hangs on the cross.

That, ultimately, is the model for how God is with us in the world. The cross is not just a necessary evil by which God worked out how he would take our sin upon himself, bear our guilt and shame, and so work out our forgiveness. It is that, but it is also more. It is the epitome, of how God has always worked in the world. God has always condescended to be with us, and he has always suffered because of it.

And so in Jesus God fully invests himself in humanity. He is with humanity more deeply, more intimately than he has ever been before, but it is not unlike how he has been with humanity all along. And so in Jesus God takes on all the failures of humankind. He takes on all our sin and folly and shame and evil. He allows all that to nail him to the cross, but God’s reputation is not overcome, nor does God allow humanity to be overcome. God raises Jesus from the dead to demonstrate his faithfulness, his grace, his love, and his power that is over every force in heaven or on earth, even the power of sin and death. And so the glory of God is restored in the human person of Jesus Christ. And so Jesus restores the image of God in humanity.

So in Jesus we see the epitome of how God is with humanity. God suffers with us and for us in order to redeem us. But we also see the epitome of how humanity was meant to be with God. That is, in Jesus we see what God desired when he created humanity in his image. Jesus is born of the line of David. He is born to be the King of Israel and so to take up the royal calling of Adam, to be God’s agent in the world in order to rule in the world with justice and to care for the world to make it flourish.

Jesus accomplishes this task not by trusting in the powers of the world, but by trusting in God alone. He trusts God and remains obedient to God even to the point of death. And so he embodies Psalm 46. He knows that God has power over the nations of the world. He knows that God could raise up an angelic army to crush Rome and take him off the cross. But he trusts God even more deeply. He knows that God has power over the primordial forces of chaos and beyond. He trust he has power over death itself. On the cross Jesus fulfills the calling of humanity created in God’s image because he prays, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

And that, my friends, is the beginning of how we who are in Christ through our baptism begin to be transformed into the image of Christ which is the restored image of God in humanity. As those created in God’s image we are called to act as agents in the world, but we begin fulfilling that calling by being joined to Jesus on the cross. In Christ we die to our own wills. In Christ we are called to suffer with and for others. In Christ we trust in God as our strong refuge. We trust that he is the God of creation, the God of life, and the God of resurrection who is mightier than any power whether it be in heaven or on earth. And so in Christ our wills are resurrected so that we too may begin to move toward that obedience.

My friends, though the world may seem to be filled with chaotic forces that seek to undo us, trust in God for he is our strong refuge, and ever present help in trouble, for the Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. He is with us so that through us he might be with and for the world, and particularly those who are oppressed. He is with us in Christ in order to transform us into the human beings we were created to be, his faithful image bearers. Let us look past the fears and anxieities of our age and continue to point to the signs of God’s kingdom coming. While poverty still oppresses many, great strides in global poverty have been made in the past decade. While nations still rage and war against one another, we have also known many years of relative peace and prosperity. While racists and religious fanatics still raise their ugly voices, there have been strides taken to recognize that all humans are made in God’s image. So let us place our hope in God. Let us obey him in all things and act as he enable us. Let us seek his help where we must. And let us trust him to heal this broken world in the ways only he can bring justice and shalom. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
[that I can change]
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Amen.


[1] Greg Thompson and Gabe Lyons, Six Practices of the Church || Episode Two: Context http://qideas.org/videos/six-practices-of-the-church-episode-two-context/

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November 13, 2016 Stand Firm, Testify
(Luke 21:5-19) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] This morning I want to tell you about a time my older brother and I were camping with my grandparents. One morning I was playing at the campground park, just minding my own business, swinging on the swings, when some other kids came along and started playing on the merry-go-round. We started talking, but soon they started saying things that weren’t very nice. They started making fun of me and calling me names.

Has anything like that ever happened to you? Maybe at school, or in the park? Now don’t answer me, but just think about that time for a moment. Think about how that felt to be made fun of and called names. … I remember feeling lots of things. I felt scared. I felt mad. But most of all I felt alone. I felt all those things at once.

Now I don’t remember what all happened after that. What I do remember is that at some point my Grandpa showed up. I think he heard the other boys or saw that they were teasing me. I don’t remember him saying anything to those boys. All I remember is that he took me by the hand, and walked with me back to the campsite. You know what I remember from that day? I remember how good it felt just to have someone stand by me and take me by the hand. I was no longer alone.

You know, in a way, that’s what Jesus was like. He spent a lot of his time with people other people disliked. People they called “sinners.” So one way to be like Jesus is that when you see someone making fun of someone else, you don’t have to do anything or say anything. To be like Jesus, you can just come by the other person and be with them. Because then they will know that they are not all alone. [End]

“The end is near!” Last week’s Time Magazine cover featured Trump and Clinton holding a sign saying, “The end is near!”  I am sure that they both recognized the intended double entendre. The end of the campaign was drawing near as Election Day approached. But many, on both sides of the political spectrum have been prophesying the end of America as we know it, or Democracy, or whatever, if the person on the other side were to win.

The prophets of doom on the Left are now raising their voices even louder “How can we maintain a democratic union with a president who is so openly racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic?” They ask.  If you have not heard, numerous incidents have been reported across the country of people of color, Jews, homosexuals, and Muslims being harassed, heckled, intimidated, insulted, and even physically attacked. “How can we maintain a democratic union with a populace that is so divided with regard to the media?” One pundit described the media as “a Wild West of information – a media ecology in which nothing can be believed except what you already believe.”[1] In other words, how can we seek compromise, cooperation, and have open and profitable debate – things essential to a democracy – when people only consume and believe the media sources they already believe.

While many of us Christians may lament this current social and political environment, while we may even fear the prophets of doom are correct, we ought not be too surprised. Nor ought we lose all hope. As Jesus and his disciples walk through the temple courts, his disciples comment on the beauty of the stones adorning the temple and the gifts dedicated to God. “As for what you see here,” Jesus says, “the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; everyone of them will be thrown down” (Luke 21:6).

The temple stood as the most prominent and controversial of symbols for the people of Israel in Jesus’ day. The closest thing I can think of is the symbol of the American flag. On the one hand, the temple was loaded with nationalistic and religious symbolism and faith. The temple was the place in which God was believed to dwell. It signified God’s presence with his people and the truth that God had chosen Israel as his special people. The temple represented the hope that the people would one day be liberated by God from the Romans. And, of course, it was the place where they worshipped God and relived all the events of their history – from the Exodus, to their time in the desert, and the rededication of the temple at Hanukah - and celebrated God’s constant provision every year at harvest time. There was no other place or symbol that encapsulated all of what Israel was, and was called to be, and hoped to become. Likewise, the American flag stands as a symbol of the ideals this country holds, of the men and women who have fought and died to protect those ideals, and of all that this country aspires to be.

But the temple and the flag are not without controversy. As San Francisco 49ers Quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, has made clear, not all in Americans believe that America has lived up to its proclaimed ideals. Kaepernick has led a silent protest against the racial violence in this country by refusing to stand, and bending down on one knee, while the National Anthem is played at the beginning of football games. If the flag represents American values, then Kaepernick will not honor it as long as the American society tolerates such violence against blacks, and thus refuses to truly value what it claims.

The temple in Jesus’ day was controversial because not all Isreal lived out the ideals of the temple. King Herod built the temple and it was run by his puppets, the high priests and the Sadducees. Herod, however, was not an ethnic Jew, nor a very pious one. He was born in Idumea, but yet claimed the messianic title of “King of the Jews.” He claimed to have converted to Judaism, and so rebuilt the temple and worshipped there, but he also built temples in honor of the Roman and Greek gods, and one to honor Caesar himself, and worshipped in them as well. He paid lip service to following the Jewish law, while breaking it frequently and publicly. He kowtowed to Rome and, to top it off, he was a ruthless tyrant who thought nothing of squashing any hint of rebellion with extreme brutality, or even of killing off his own sons who threatened his position. So, at one and the same time the temple stood as the most patriotic and sacred symbol of the Jewish people and the greatest symbol of treason, of those who aligned with Herod and colluded with the Romans.

So when Jesus prophesies that the temple will be destroyed, and when he goes on to prophesy that Jerusalem itself will be overthrown – a prophesy that came true, by the way, the year 60 AD – he upends all the hopes and the fears the disciples and the people of Israel placed in the nation of Israel. But, he says, when you see these things happening, know that the end is not near. In fact, he goes on to say that there will be ages of political revolutions and wars involving nations against nations. But none of this will signal “The End.”

That is because “The End,” the coming of God’s Kingdom, has little or nothing to do with the political kingdoms of this world. In fact, our text is perhaps one of the first indications that God’s way of working with, in, and through one particular nation, that of Israel, was coming to an end. Jesus, you see, fulfilled Israel’s vocation and so God’s way of working in the world would now shift from working primarily, but never exclusively, through one, ethnic nation, to working primarily, though never exclusively, through the followers of Jesus Christ. And the church of Jesus Christ would not be limited by any political boundaries, or defined by any ethnic or cultural markers. It would become a people from every ethnicity and nation and language and gender and social class. It would be a people defined by one thing and one thing only – its confession that Jesus is Lord.

And so, as Jesus tells his disciples that their hopes for national revitalization and renewal and eventual triumph will come to nothing, he reminds them of their calling as his disciples. He tells them in verse 12 that in the midst of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple they, his followers, will be persecuted “on account of my name.” Instead of triumph, the followers of Christ can expect to follow in the footsteps of Christ. If they confess that he is Lord, if they confess his name, then they should expect to be persecuted. So what are they to do?

Late Tuesday night as I was crawling in to bed, a friend of mine texted me: “What does this mean for me as a Christian? … 80% of White Evangelicals voted for Trump according to the exit polls.” What does it mean for those of us who are White Evangelicals that Trump won the election? If we voted for him, how do we distance ourselves from the despicable acts that a few of his supporters are perpetrating? If we didn’t vote for him, should we then go out an join the protestors in saying “Not My President!.”? And what if you are a Christian but don’t identify as an Evangelical? Or what if you are an Evangelical, but not white or not even American? All of us who confess Christ Jesus as Lord must act in some way in the current political and social climate? What do we do?

Jesus tells his disciples two things. First, he says that by confessing his name they will get into trouble, but in verse 13 he says, “This will result in your being witnesses to them” And second, in verse 19, he says, “By standing firm you will gain life.” Basically Jesus calls his disciples to continue doing what they have been called to do: confess him as Lord, confess his name, both in word and in deed. Testify and stand firm.

If we look back through the Gospel of Luke we can get an idea of what this means, of what Jesus is calling his followers to do. As I mentioned in the children’s sermon, Jesus spent a lot of his time just hanging out with those who were hated and ostracized by the rest of society He was called a friend of tax-collectors and sinners. But notice how often in his teachings and in the stories about Jesus the outsiders, the poor and the sinners are the protagonists. Just before our story, Jesus notices a widow who puts in a mere penny into the temple treasury and he holds her up as being more generous than those who put in vast amounts of wealth. In chapter 17 Jesus commends a Samaritan who was only one of ten lepers who came back to thank Jesus for healing and cleansing him. In chapter 18 Jesus encourages us to pray continually by holding up an oppressed widow as an example. He holds up a tax collector and little children as examples of humility that we ought to follow if we want to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus stood by those who were outcast, those who were oppressed, those who were hated by those who were considered “the righteous”.

Through his deeds he demonstrated what it meant that he was Lord. He lived out what he had said in 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoner and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

So what are we to do in our context? Jesus calls us to stand firm and to stand by those who are demonized, those who are oppressed, and those who are recipients of hatred and violence in our society. Maybe these incidents of xenophobia and racism over the last few days are overblown. But maybe they are not. Whatever the case may be, to confess Jesus as Lord is to walk in his footsteps and that means to identify and then stand beside those who are maligned, ridiculed, and hated within our society. It might mean attending a Black Lives Matter rally. It might mean working with Books to Prisoners to help those who are incarcerated better themselves while they are in prison. It may mean standing alongside Muslims, or African Americans, or anyone from any other country who is feeling threatened by Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric.

But it also means acting in ways counterintuitive to those who oppose Trump. It means coming alongside those who voted for Trump and trying to understand why it is that they feel disenfranchised. Why are they so angry? Why do they feel the system has left them behind? I, for one, don’t believe that all those who voted for Trump voted for him because of his racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic rhetoric. But I also don’t completely understand why they voted for Trump other than that they somehow feel like they are the ones the political system has overlooked. To stand firm means to be peace makers, those who seek to bring about reconciliation.

So, first, we are called to stand with the oppressed and marginalized. Second, we are called to bear witness, to testify to the Kingdom of God and the Lordship of Christ Jesus. In our context I believe it is most pressing that we bear witness to the truth that the Kingdom of God is not tied to the fate of the United States of America. Jesus rejected the nationalistic path of the Kingdom and we must call out the lie that America is somehow God’s favored nation. And this is something we must take to heart wherever we are on the political spectrum. We must call out the lie that the election of Trump somehow hastens the coming of God’s kingdom. But we must also proclaim and take hope in the fact that the election of Trump will not hinder the coming of God’s Kingdom. It will effect how much the United States lives up to the ideals of God’s justice, but that’s true of anyone elected to the white house. The bottom line is that Kingdom of God does not depend on the fate of the American government. Those of us who are American Christians are not called to make America great again, but to seek to make America, and thus the world, more just.

In the midst of chaotic political times, Jesus calls his followers to walk in his footsteps. Jesus did and said things that indicated that he believed he was the Messiah, the savior of Israel. But he was crucified because he challenged the definition of Messiah held both by the political and religious elites on both sides of the spectrum. First, he identified with those society maligned and oppressed – the poor, tax-collectors, sinners, women, the blind, the unclean, and the lame. He lived out the story of the prodigal Father for he himself had a heart for all who were lost – the poor, the sinners, the sic, but also the self-righteous – and he desires all to be found and welcomed into the Kingdom of God. Second, he rejected equating the Kingdom of God with the nation of Israel. Instead of taking up the sword of King David, he took up his own cross for the sake, once again, of all who were lost.

Our calling in the midst of chaotic political times is to do no less – to confess the Lordship of Christ by bearing witness to his kingdom, inviting all who are lost into the kingdom, and by standing firm with and for all those who are oppressed. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.  

Lord God of all the ages,

the One who is, who was, and who is to come,

stir up within us a longing for your kingdom,

steady our hearts in time of trial,

and grant us patient endurance until the sun of justice dawns.

We make our prayer through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ., Amen.



[1] Neal Gabler, “Farewell, America,” (billmoyers.com, November 10, 2016) http://billmoyers.com/story/farewell-america/.

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November 6, 2016 Guest preacher this week: No sermon available
There is no audio for this sermon.
October 30, 2016 Guest preacher this week: No sermon available
There is no audio for this sermon.
October 23, 2016 Looking up to heaven with your eyes cast down
(Luke 18:9-14) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] What are some things that your parents do that show you that they love you? … What are some things that you do to show that you love your parents? … In the same way, there are things that God does that show us that he loves us, right? … and there are things that we do that show God and others that we love God? … But you know what I have here in this bag? I have something that will show others that God loves me. I have something in this bag that I can do that let’s everyone else know that I am? What do you suppose that is? What can I do to let everyone know that God loves me? … What’s in the bag?  Nothing?

This morning Jesus tells a parable of about a tax collector and a Pharisee. The Pharisee prays to God and thanks God for all the things he thinks shows others that God loves him. He thanks God that he is not a sinner and that he follows all his laws. But the tax collector stands far away and doesn’t even look up to God. He simply prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

We can’t do anything to show others that God loves us. But we can come before God like empty bags. We can come before God and ask him to fill our bags with his love, with his mercy, and to provide for all our needs. [end]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable” (Luke 18:9). What comes to your mind when you think of someone who is “confident in their own righteousness?”  I imagine we all picture someone who always follows the rules, who never colors outside the lines, who keeps their house tidy and clean, and believes that these all demonstrate an exemplary moral character. Such a person looks at others with disdain. Others have no discipline. They are uncivilized, morally weak, and deserve to be shunned and avoided.

I don’t know about you, but I really haven’t met anyone like that. I think we get that image from the movies and television. Hollywood depicts Christians who take their faith seriously as judgmental, arrogant snobs who are out of touch with reality. Most often they are also hypocrites who show a puritan demeanor to the world, but harbor some secret sin.

Likewise, I think we have drawn such an image for the Pharisees in the biblical stories. This parable is perhaps the quintessential source for our image of the self-righteous, hypocritical Pharisee. The Pharisee stands by himself in the temple and prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” “I thank you that I am morally pure, but deep down I know that I am to thank for my righteousness. I am the one who doesn’t cheat others of money or cheat on my wife. I am the one who follows your laws to the T. But I thank you because a righteous person demonstrates gratitude to you. But this, too, is a false caricature. It doesn’t fit the real concerns of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

Last week I argued that Jesus’ last parable about the persistent widow and prayer was set within the context of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God in chapter 17. If you look at the following parables, you can see that the Kingdom of God remains the main topic. He says in verse 17, “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  In verse 18 a rich man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Eternal life” is just another way of saying “life in the Kingdom of God,” for as the man walks away Jesus says in verse 24, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God?” (24).

To be considered righteous in Jesus’ day was not primarily about having a morally upright character. The word righteous in the Greek is the same word used for justice in the preceding parable about the widow. Justice and righteousness in the Hebrew mindset are primarily about having things set right. A just outcome is an outcome that sets things right. A righteous person is someone who is in a right relationship with others, and primarily with God.

Within the context of the times, as the Jewish people hoped for the coming Kingdom of God, a righteous person was someone who was going to be in the Kingdom of God. We thus see the direct connection between this parable and the surrounding stories. In the preceding parable Jesus encourages his disciples to continue praying for the coming kingdom of God, for God will grant them justice, and soon. He will set things to rights for his people Israel. He, thus, first addresses the corporate issue. Will God come and bring justice or righteousness for his people?

In this parable, he turns to address the individual issue. Jesus presents two individuals: one is obviously righteous. He will obviously be among those welcomed into the Kingdom. The other will obviously be kicked out of the kingdom. The Pharisee demonstrates all the marks of a righteous person. He is not a sinner. He observes the law. He exhibits all the characteristics of someone who is right with God. .. Or so he thinks. The tax collector, on the other hand, is obviously not going to inherit the kingdom. Tax collectors were notorious cheats. They colluded with Gentiles and thus they were most likely perpetually unclean because of all their contact with Gentiles. The tax-collector exhibits all the marks of an unrighteous person. … or so everyone assumes.

But in the end, Jesus says the tax collector went home righteous, in a right relationship with God. He is the one who will be welcomed into the kingdom. So what is it that makes a person righteous? What is it that makes a person right with God, a member of God’s people, a part of the coming Kingdom?  Well, many will argue that the Pharisee attempts to gain his salvation through works. He is self-righteous because he thinks he has earned his salvation. His good deeds, his alms giving, and his pious practices have put him in a right relationship with God. And, moreover, he is snobbish and judgmental to boot. Since he thinks he has earned his righteousness, he thinks he has earned the right to be critical of others. But the point, we have believed, is that  you can’t earn righteousness.

Meanwhile, the tax collector confesses his sin before God. He humbles himself before God and receives mercy from God, and thus is made righteous. He is the one who walks away in a right relationship with God for he has confessed his sin.

That, however, is to read the concerns of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation back into the text. The Jewish people of Jesus day, including the Pharisees, did not believe that they earned their salvation. They did believe that it was God who saved them out of his great mercy and his loving faithfulness. They knew that keeping the law was their part of the covenant. Keeping the law was not how they became saved by God, it was how they demonstrated their faithfulness to God, and thus it was how they were marked out as “the righteous,” as those who were set apart as God’s covenant people now and thus would also be vindicated as God’s faithful people when God came to deliver his people from the Romans. The Pharisee thanks God for the things he believes mark him out as someone who has been saved. He thanks God for these things, but he also takes pride in them. He is more grateful for looking like a righteous person than for being made righteous. It is a subtle, yet important difference.

We as Protestants often fall into a similar trap. Protestants of all stripes have it drilled into our heads that we cannot earn favor with God through what we do. So much so that we read this back into the scriptures at whatever chance we get.  Liberal or conservative, Evangelical or Mainline: we know that we are saved by grace alone through faith. But do we really believe that we are saved by grace alone through faith? For if we are saved through faith, what kind of faith saves us?

And that is where the rub is. If you think about it, we start erecting all sorts of conditions to the truth that we are saved by grace alone by defining “faith” in particular ways. But when we start erecting conditions to grace, we start eroding the truth that we are saved by grace alone. Some of us define faith in terms of particular doctrines. True faith must include such things as a belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It must include an understanding of how Jesus’ death on the cross saves us, that he took upon himself the sins of the world, took God’s wrath for us and thus earned us our salvation. In a similar vein, true faith for many includes a particular way of reading the scriptures. If you don’t believe that the scriptures are the infallible word of God, well then your salvation is suspect. And then “true faith” starts to include particular positions on various issues of the day: Can women be ordained in the church? Must homosexuals remain celibate? Do you vote for the truly Christian candidate who opposes abortion and gay marriage? How you answer those questions doesn’t save you, but many see them as marks or as evidence of whether or not you have the true faith by which you are saved.  N.T. Wright has said that Protestants are often guilty of saying that we are saved by grace alone, but believing that we are saved by believing we are saved by grace alone. In other words, we have come to put our faith in our doctrines rather than in God alone.

It is easiest to pick out examples of such litmus tests from the right, but the left has them too. True faith for some includes a particular commitment to social justice, tolerance of people of other faith traditions, even a recognition that other faith traditions are really expressions of faith in the same God. It boils down to the same problem the Pharisee has. We start erecting all these marks of righteousness, all these tell-tale signs that demonstrate that we are saved by God’s grace. But then we begin to take pride in the things like particular doctrines or practices that mark us out as having been saved. And we start to judge others saying, they must not be saved, they must not be among the righteous because they don’t believe or behave like we do, like those of us who have the true marks of righteousness.

You see, it isn’t what the Pharisee or the tax collector does or says in their prayer that marks them out as righteous or unrighteous, for there is nothing that we can do to mark us out as righteous or unrighteous. We are saved, made righteous, set right with God by grace alone. And it is God who does this all the way down. The actions and words of the Pharisee and the tax-collector reveal a more fundamental difference. They reveal a stance, an attitude toward God and others that demonstrates and marks them out as someone who has received grace or not. You see, the Pharisee demonstrates pride, while the tax collector demonstrates humility. It is not what we do that marks us out as righteous, but merely our stance before God that marks us out as those who truly know God’s grace and those who have yet to grasp and fully receive God’s love for them.

If you look closely at the surrounding stories, you will notice that they are each not only about the Kingdom of God, but also about humility. To pray to God persistently calls us to humble ourselves before God, recognizing that our only hope is in him. Jesus says in verse 17, “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Jesus tells a rich man to go and sell everything he has and give it to the poor in verse 24. Jesus calls him to humble himself. And, in case we have forgotten, Luke reminds us in verse 31 that Jesus, the Messiah, the returning King of Israel, the Son of David, is on his way up to Jerusalem to claim his throne and to bring righteousness and justice to God’s people. He is going up to Jerusalem where he will be mocked, beaten, tortured and killed. “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Humility is a mark of God’s grace for it goes hand-in-hand with another mark of grace: faith, trust in God. The tax collector doesn’t humble himself by confessing his sin and throwing himself at the feet of God’s mercy. He throws himself at God’s feet because he is humble. A humble person has looked up to heaven from where our help comes, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. He has looked up to heaven not in pride, but in humility. He has looked up to heaven to receive God’s grace. A humble person knows that God is the one who redeems us. A humble person is therefore able to cast themselves at the feet of God’s mercy for they already know that they are held in the embrace of God’s love. The marks of God’s grace upon us, you see, are not things we do or things we believe. The marks of God’s grace upon us are faith and humility for through faith we humbly receive and accept and trust in God’s love for us.  In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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October 16, 2016 The Breath of Faith
(Luke 18:1-8) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon]
If you were hungry, which one of these people would you call? [Holds up pictures of various people]
The Chef. That’s right.
Now if you were lost, who would you ask for help?
The traffic officer.
How about if you saw smoke coming out of someone’s house? The firefighter. And if you were sick?
The Doctor.
Now why would you call each of these people? Why would you run to the doctor instead of the police officer if you were sick? Each one knows how to do certain things. They have each been trained to do different things. You ask the person for help who knows how to give you the kind of help you need.

This morning I would like to talk about prayer for a minute. What is prayer? Talking to God. Asking God for things. Last week we talked about being thankful, right? When we pray, we often say thanks to God for many things, don’t we?

Well prayer is also listening to God. How can we listen to God? Reading the Bible. Remembering what God says in the Bible and thinking about how that comforts you, or makes you feel happy or safe. Or maybe we listen to how God’s word tells me I should act differently, like to be more kind to others. Listening to Sunday school teachers. These are all ways of listening to God, and so they are ways to pray.

So when we pray to God, we talk to him and we listen to him. But why do we pray to God? Well just like we go to the doctor because we know she can make us better, and we call the firefighter because we know they can put out fires, we pray to God because we believe that he loves us, that he cares for us, and the he will provide for us. A couple of weeks ago we talked about faith the size of a mustard seed. Prayer is sort of like faith in action. By praying to God we are saying that we believe in him, that we trust him, and that we believe that he knows what is best for us. And that is faith.

So instead of just talking about prayer, let’s pray: Gracious God, you are always watching over us. And you are always ready to hear our prayers. Teach us to be sure of your care, day and night. Help us to pray: to ask you for what we need; to thank you for what you have given us; to trust that you know what is best for us and that you will do for us what is best for us. Help us to listen to you and to obey you, so that we might become more like your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen. [end]

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jacob watches as the last of his family crosses the river Jabbok. His two wives and all their children have crossed over to the other side. All of his possessions, his flocks of goats and sheep, his wagons and tents, his servants and slaves, have crossed over to the other side. His future has crossed over. His past lies across the river as well. Esau, his brother, waits to receive him. (Genesis 32:22-32)

But how will he be received? Years and years ago Jacob left the land of his fathers, the land that was actually only promised to his fathers. The land that was now promised to him. The land that was promised by God to him because Jacob had cheated Esau out of his birthright. The land that was to be his because he had deceived his father, Isaac, into giving him Esau’s blessing, the blessing of the first born. When last Jacob had seem him, Esau had sworn to kill him. How will Jacob be received?

Jacob, the heel-grabber, the deceiver, the trickster, now sits on the bank of the Jabbok River starring into the place of his distant past and the place of his future. Out of the growing darkness a man rushes at him and tackles him. The two toss each other to the ground, twisting, turning, first one gaining the advantage, then the other. They wrestle hour after hour – bodies aching, muscles straining, mouths dry and panting. The darkness surrounds them and engulfs them, but on and on they struggle.

As dawn breaks, the man slackens his grip and his muscles relax. Jacob pounces and rolls him over, pinning him to the ground. With his last bit of strength the man reaches down and touches Jacob’s hip. Jacob reels over in pain as though kicked by a mule, but he yet hangs on to the man. “Let me go,” the man says, “for it is daybreak.” “I will not let you go,” replies Jacob, “unless you bless me.” “What is your name?” “Jacob.” “Your name will no longer be Jacob, deceiver, heel-grabber, tripper, but Israel for you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” (27-28)

Is your name Israel, too? Have you ever struggled with God? Maybe you have faced a past that makes you wonder if you can be redeemed. Maybe you have done things in your life, horrible things, that you wonder if they can ever be forgiven by God and by those you have harmed. Have you spent nights praying to God, asking him to clear you of your guilt, remove your shame, make you clean?

Or maybe you face a future that looks dark, dismal, or just plain foggy? When Jacob left the land of Canaan, God had promised that he would watch over Jacob and protect him, that he would give him many descendants, that he would return Jacob to the land of Canaan and give the land to his descendants. And Jacob replied, “If God will be with me and if he will watch over me … so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the Lord will be my God” (28:20-21). Have you ever made a deal with God like that? “If you watch over me, God, then you will be my God?”

Now Jacob looks across the river and he wonders if God is going to remain faithful to his promises, or if Esau will fulfill his bloody oath. God does indeed watch over Jacob and his family. Eventually they thrived in the land of Canaan for a time. But they continued to struggle with God generation after generation. Sometimes faithful and praying to God. At other times faithless, worshipping idols.

In Jesus’ day the nation of Israel still struggled with God. The promises made to Jacob still reverberated through the psyche of the nation. God had fulfilled his promise to Jacob. Israel had become a great nation under King David ruling in the land and establishing peace. But now, while the people lived in the land, the Romans ruled in the land, and there were many foreigners and worse, Samaritans, living in parts of the land. The people of Israel wondered when God would make good on his promises. Perhaps some wondered if the promises were still valid. Many hoped but yet struggled. When would God restore Israel and make them a great nation once again, giving them full control over their land, blessing them as he had in the past?

In Luke 17:20 a Pharisee puts this question to Jesus. “When will the kingdom of God come?” In other words, when will God restore Israel? When will he redeem his people? When will he restore the land to them? Jesus replies, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is among you.

After teaching his disciples about the coming day of God’s judgement, the day when God will make all things right, the day Jesus calls “the days of the Son of Man,” he tells them a parable “to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (18:1). He tells them of a widow who seeks justice from a judge who neither cares for people nor obeys God. He is a judge who only cares about himself and so he ignores her please for justice. But she persists. She keeps showing up day after day calling upon him to hear her case and to give her justice. Finally, he relents, not because he cares about her, or God, or justice, but only because he fears for his reputation.

Listen to what the unjust judge says,” Jesus tells his disciples. “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly” (6-8).

We often hear this parable in terms of our own struggles with God. We hear Jesus telling us to keep praying to God for our own needs, or maybe for those around us whom we love. We are encouraged to pray because Jesus promises that God will answer our prayers.

But Jesus tells this parable in the context of God’s people longing for God’s kingdom. While the widow seeks justice for herself, the nation of Israel sought justice for the nation. They prayed for God to redeem them from the rule of Rome. And Jesus promises his disciples that, if they pray to God continually, if they long for the kingdom, God will answer them, and soon. We must understand this parable first and foremost in the context of God’s people praying for the coming of the kingdom of God. And so we must understand prayer itself in the context of our longing for the kingdom of God.

You see, God answers the prayers of his people, the disciples. And quickly. But he does not answer them in the way the disciples expect. For Jesus has taught them that the Kingdom of God is not what they expect. The kingdom of God will not come with the restoration of Israel over against the Romans. “The Kingdom of God is among you,” he teaches them. He then says in 17:22 “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it.” And then in v. 25, “But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.”

God answers the disciple’s prayers for the coming of the kingdom when Jesus travels to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem Jesus submits to the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. He is nailed to a cross and he dies. But on the third day he is raised from the dead. Jesus tells his disciples, “I tell you, [God] will see that they, God’s chosen ones, will get justice, and quickly.” God’s justice, God’s judgement and the vindication of God and his people is given in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world and he allowed the sin of the world to nail him to the cross. He succumbed to the curse of sin, which is death. But God declared a judgement upon sin and death. God triumphed over sin and death and so began to reconcile the world to himself. That is, he began to bring final justice, a final making of all things right again. No longer would sin and death reign in the world for God raised Jesus from the grave and seated him at his right hand in heaven.

I said earlier in the children’s sermon that prayer was an exercise of our faith. Let me put that another way: prayer is the breath of faith. In prayer we breathe out all our praise and thanksgiving to God. We breathe out all the ways God reigns his blessings down upon us. We breathe out all our needs and desires. We breathe out all our longings for the healing of a brother, that restoration would come to the nation of Haiti, that Betty would be comforted, that our nation would be redeemed from this downward spiral into hatred and fear. In prayer we breathe out faith for we turn to God in trust, in hope, in the knowledge that he is our Almighty Creator. We breathe faith through prayer for we know that God is able to answer our prayers. We ask him because he can do it.

And then we breathe in. We wait for God’s answer. And we wait patiently, expectantly. We breathe in as we listen to God’s word and receive the comfort of God’s attentiveness. We breathe in the assurance of his presence with us. We breathed in as we listen to how we ought to respond to God’s word. We breathe in as we hear God’s call to repentance or his call to action. And as we meditate on Jesus, we breathe in the joy of all that God has done for his creation in Jesus Christ. In prayer we breathe in faith for we trust and know that God is not only able to answer our prayer, we trust and know that he desires to answer our prayers. We pray to God for he is our Merciful Redeemer, our loving Father.

Prayer is the breath of faith, but it is also our struggle with God. Just pray the psalms and you will come to know prayer as the nation of Israel did, as a struggle with God. For we know that God answers prayer in his time and that our prayers will be answered first according to the designs of his coming kingdom. He will answer in ways that are best for us, but our “best” is subsumed in what is best for the kingdom. And how our best equates with what is best for the kingdom is inscrutable to us. Sometimes what is our “best” includes what we consider unanswered prayer. Sometimes what is “best” does not result in our healing, or in our reconciliation with our estranged brother. Sometimes our “best” leads us into suffering and humiliation and even death. But Jesus urges us to struggle on, to pray continually. To keep breathing faith in and out.

We keep breathing for in faith we know that God has already given the beginning of an answer to our deepest prayers. He has already begun to fulfil our greatest longings and desires in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus, you may say, is the penultimate answer to our prayers. It is the guarantee that there will be an ultimate answer to our prayers. In Christ we have been reconciled to God and therefore the Kingdom of God is already among us. The resurrection of Christ is the down payment guaranteeing that God will reconcile all things to him, that he will make all things new, that peace and shalom shall rule over all nations for the word of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. The breath of faith is pray couched in and shaped by the words, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

And so when our prayers are answered here and now, when our brother is healed, when justice comes to a nation, when relief comes to the poor, and reconciliation comes to those at war, we praise God for these are signs of his coming kingdom. These are not ultimate answers to our prayers; they are only temporary answers. They are but reverberations of the resurrection of Christ. They are foretastes of what is to come. They begin to give life the shape of things to come.

And so, Jesus concludes, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (18:8) Will he find his people breathing faith in and out? Will he find his people on their knees in prayer? In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come. Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive
those who sin against us,
And lead us not into temptation, but
deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom and the power and the
glory are yours forever. Amen.

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October 9, 2016 The Borders of Grace
(Luke 17:11-19) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] I wonder, who would like a cookie this morning? OK, here you go. So what do you say when someone gives you a cookie? Now I know some of you can speak more than one language. How do you say thank you in other languages?

Have you ever wondered what some of those words actually mean and where they come from?  Korean: go mop seum ni da, means one is pleased for someone's kindness. Japanese: Arigato - “hard to find.” Maybe that means, “Wow, such kindness in people is rare!”   We say “Thank you” in English because a long time ago it meant “thought.” My guess is you said “Thank you,” in order to say, “That was thoughtful of you,” or “That was kind of you to think of me and what I needed or wanted.” Now one of you mentioned German. Danke means “Thank you,” right? Well what does “denke” mean in German? Thought. See how they are related. Does anyone know how to say “Thank you,” in French? Merci. That sounds like mercy.  How about in Spanish? Gracias. That sounds like grace, doesn’t it?.

So there are so many ways to say “Thank you.” When we say “Thank you,” we can tell people “You thought of me!” “You were gracious to me.” “You showed me mercy.” “Such kindness is hard to find. Or, “I am so pleased by your kindness.”  Maybe we have so many ways to say “Thank you” because we have so many things to be thankful for.

Once Jesus healed ten people of a disease called leprosy. But only one of them came back to say thank you to Jesus. It makes you wonder, am I like that one person who came back to thank Jesus, or am I like the 9 who didn’t’. There are so many ways to say thank you, and so many things to be thankful for, but are we truly thankful to God for all the ways he provides for us?  [End]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jesus is walking along the border between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. Maybe Luke doesn’t know his geography very well because it’s sort of an odd statement to make. Samaria lies south of Galilee between Galilee and Jerusalem. One might say you crossed the border between Galilee and Samaria on your way to Jerusalem, but if you are walking along the border then you are walking east or west and not really heading toward Jerusalem. But maybe Luke makes this odd statement because he wants us to think about borders.

So Jesus is walking along the border between Samaria and Galilee. He is walking along the border between what pious Jews considered clean, Jewish territory and unclean, Samaritan territory. When the Babylonians carried the Jewish people off to Babylon, they left a few behind. Those left behind then intermarried with the pagan people the Babylonians brought in to live in Israel. While they taught the pagans about God and to worship God, the pagans also introduced some of their own practices into the worship of God.

The Jews of Jesus’ day disdained the Samaritans more than the Gentiles because the Samaritans were not only not Jewish, they were a corruption of the Jewish people. And while the Gentiles worshipped other gods, the Samaritans corrupted the true worship of God.

So Jesus skirts along the border between the clean and the unclean, between that which is holy and that which is profane, between the acceptable and the despicable. Most respectable Jews crossed the Jordan River and walked down the east side of the river in order to go to Jerusalem rather than walk through Samaria. But Jesus is walking along the border.

As Jesus enters a village ten men with a skin disease meet him. They don’t come close to him. As prescribed by the law they keep their distance. They maintain the appropriate border between them so that they do not make Jesus unclean as they are. But they call out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

The ten, unclean, lepers call Jesus, Master. Luke is the only Gospel writer to use this term for Jesus. Aside from this one instance, the disciples are the only people who ever call Jesus, Master. Have the ten lepers declared themselves Jesus’ disciples? Have they crossed the border between someone in the crowd following Jesus and a disciple who sits at Jesus’ feet?

Seeing them, Jesus said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went they were cleansed.”

Jesus orders them to cross some borders. The temple contained several courtyards, each with a higher standard of holiness. Gentiles were permitted to enter the Court of the Gentiles which was not part of the temple proper. Only Jews who were ritually clean could enter beyond the Court of the Gentiles and into the Court of Women. Only men could go further into the Court of Israel. Only ritually pure and appropriately dressed priests could enter the Court of the Priests. And, finally, only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which, by the way, will be this Tuesday, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

So Jesus orders the ten lepers to go and see the priests. As lepers, they lived in a permanent state of being unclean. They lived on the outskirts of towns and called out to everyone, “Unclean, unclean,” lest they accidentally come into contact with someone and make them unclean. Jesus sends them to the priest because when a person was healed of a skin infection, they needed to have a priest inspect them and declare them clean again. So the lepers head off in faith. Perhaps they don’t need to enter into the court of Israel to see a priest, but metaphorically, Jesus sends them across the border from unclean to clean while they are still unclean. But, as Luke writes, "As they went, they were cleansed.”

As they went, they turned from being outcasts to being ordinary men. As they went, they crossed the border from being despicable, to acceptable. They crossed the border from exile to home.

So what borders do we continue to erect? What borders do we keep drawing to keep people out? What borders is God calling us to cross? What borders is God calling us to erase? Of course there are the obvious ones of race, class, ethnicity, and gender. We still have far to go. We are still a nation and a world divided by race, in which women often receive less than men, and in which power is held disproportionately by and used for the wealthy. We are just beginning to recognize the borders of sexual orientation and gender identity as borders we need to eliminate. Whatever you believe the Bible teaches about homosexuality, it does teach that we are to love all people. And we, the church, have loved poorly in this arena.

There is another border that we probably don’t think about very often. Next Sunday is Disabilities Awareness week in the Christian Reformed Church. Churches are encouraged to include the insert your bulletin in their bulletins and to raise awareness of the struggles and triumph of people with disabilities. I thought I would just do this today since it fit this week’s text better then next week.

In a recent issue of The Banner, our denomination’s magazine, Jim Boldenouw writes of growing up 50 years ago with dyslexia, a condition that makes it hard for you to process written and oral information. Reading and writing are particularly difficult for people with dyslexia. He tells of how a teacher once made him skip recess to write a Bible verse out on the blackboard 10 times because he was unable to memorize it and so had paraphrased it. The teacher accused him of changing God’s word. Jim writes how once he finally learned to read, he was no longer considered dumb, but still “not working to his potential.” “My problem was considered a moral issue involving some combination of sloth, carelessness, and indifference.”[1]

We are much better at recognizing disabilities today and we no longer stigmatize children with dyslexia … as much, but do we not still have much further to go? The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is double that of people with no disability. Many of us still find it awkward and difficult to relate to people with disabilities. Many still patronize people with disabilities and treat them as though they were children. As a whole, society still forces people with disabilities to sort of stand on the edge of society as the lepers of Jesus’ day were forced to live on the outskirts of town.

This all begs the question, why do we erect so many borders anyway? Why do we as humans insist on creating false divisions among us and relegating some people to the category of “other,” or “not one of us,” or “unclean,” or “untouchable.” Why do we so easily fasten on some characteristic of others –such as a disability, or a particular ethnicity, or the color of their skin - and determine that this characteristic defines the other person and makes them less human?

I wonder if we all have a need to feel whole ourselves. We desire to feel as though we are normal and healthy and moral and upright and good. And sometimes the easiest way to feel whole ourselves is to turn our focus off of ourselves and on to others. If we can point out the deficiency, the oddness, the abnormality of others, and then ascribe some moral weight or connotation to that difference, then they are the ones who are not whole. They are the ones who are not “good.” We tell ourselves and assure ourselves that we are whole by pointing out and even fabricating deficiencies among those who differ from us.

But Jesus came to bring salvation, and salvation is not just forgives of sins. Salvation is being made whole and wholly human again. It is the grace of forgiveness for sin, but it is also the grace of being restored to physical health. It is the grace of social acceptance and receiving not only the love of God, but the love of family, neighbor and friend. It is being restored to a place of dignity within the community. The insert on Disabilities highlights how important employment is for people with disabilities because employment demonstrates that the community needs you, that you can contribute, that you have something to offer the world. It demonstrates your worth.

Luke begins this story by saying that Jesus was walking along the border between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. One could argue that Jesus’ whole ministry took place along the borders. Galilee itself had many Gentile towns and Jesus often crossed over from Galilee into Gentile territory. Jesus ministered at the borders of social and religious acceptability by eating with tax collectors, sinners, and even sometimes Pharisees. He spoke with and taught women as though they were equal to men. He touched the unclean to make them clean.

The borders we humans have created to keep others at bay and to build ourselves up have become the borders of grace. They have become the places where Jesus demonstrated God’s grace and the places where we as Christians are called to bear witness to God’s grace. For wherever humans endeavor to demean and dehumanize anyone created in the image of God, we are called to proclaim God’s love for them and their inherent worth as a child of God.

So Jesus sends the ten lepers to the priest and as they are on the way, they are cleansed. Luke continues in verse 15, “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan.”

Jesus sent all of the lepers to the priest. He sent them to cross the borders of holiness and cleanliness, but one of them was “unclean” in more than one way. One of them was unclean because of his skin disease and because of his ethnicity. One of them was not allowed, whatever his condition, to enter into the temple courts. And so when he was healed, he returned to Jesus to see the priest. In Jesus he saw a priest of God for in Jesus he saw the power and grace of God at work. He fell at Jesus’ feet and praised God. Through his gratitude he fully received God’s grace and thus was enabled to cross over the border between Samaria and Judea. Through his gratitude and God’s grace he was able to enter into the Holy Place and praise God at the feet of the Son of God.

Perhaps where we need to start is at the borders of grace in our own lives.  Do we recognize the places in our lives where God has healed us, forgiven us, made us clean, brought us home, and made us whole. Or maybe we are denying those borders in our lives where God’s grace needs to shine and bring us salvation. Have we fully received and grasped God’s love for us through our gratitude? Have we said, “Thank you,” to God and praised him for his grace? When we do, perhaps we will then be able to walk along the borders with Jesus and bear witness to his grace. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Almighty God, you created humanity in your image and gave us dominion over your creation. Fill us who have come to know your grace and salvation through our baptism into Christ Jesus, our adoption as children of God, fill us with a spirit of gratitude so that we may fully recognize our dependence on you and your love for all people. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.


[1] “God’s Dropped Stitches”, The Banner (October 2016), 36-37.

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October 2, 2016 Little Faith
(Luke 17:1-10) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time, in a magical kingdom long, long ago there was a town called Rivertown by the side of a river in a beautiful valley. Huge mountains rose up on either side of the valley that protected Rivertown, but many people believed that their real protection came from Kirin the Kind, the great and powerful and wise dragon who lived on the top of the tallest mountain.

One morning the villagers awoke to an awful sound. Some said it was a roar. Others said it was a load shriek. Others a squawk that echoed down through the valley. Well this went on day after day and the villagers began saying things like, “Kirin must be upset.” And then “Kirin must be angry.” Soon stories started being told of how powerful and scary and violent Kirin the dragon was. They began talking about Kirin the Cruel.

The villagers began to fear that Kirin the Cruel would come down the mountain and eat them all. So the finest swordsman went up the mountain to fight the dragon. But he came back with his sword broken and he said that Kirin was too quick and strong for him. Next, the greatest bowman went up. But he came back with all his arrows spent saying that Kirin’s scales were too thick for his arrows to pierce.

The villagers decided that the next morning they should send all their warriors up to the top of the mountain to attack Kirin the Cruel together. But that night, a little girl named Miriam got up when everyone was asleep. As she climbed up the mountain she remembered all the stories the elder in the village told her of Kirin the Kind, the wise and friendly dragon, who had helped the village in years past.

When she reached the top of the mountain, she slowly walked up to Kirin and asked him what was wrong. Kirin the dragon rolled over on his side. Miriam saw a rock stuck in between his scales. All around the rock Kirin’s back had become red and swollen. Miriam reached up and carefully took the rock out and gently washed the sore on his back. She then sat down next to Kirin to wait for the warriors from the village.

Sometimes we think that we need to be great and powerful and strong and fast or really, really smart in this world to do great things. But Jesus says, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” In other words, Jesus teaches us that with just a little bit of faith, we can do things that you think might be impossible. [End]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17:6). Has anyone ever tested their faith to see if they have faith even the size of a mustard seed? Maybe you went through a period in your life when you experienced some doubts about God and then you recalled this passage. Do I have faith? You wondered. Well let’s see. Jesus says if I have faith as small as a mustard seed, I can move a mulberry tree. So I will just try something a bit easier. Maybe I can move this rock at my foot. Or maybe just this sheet of paper. … Umm. Nothing. I guess I just don’t measure up!

Or maybe you were sick once, but you really needed to be somewhere for your job or for your family. So you put your faith to the test. You say a prayer, reminding Jesus what he said about the mulberry tree. If faith can move a mulberry tree, certainly your faith can make you feel good enough to go to that job interview or to your cousin’s wedding. But you pray, and you pray, and you just can’t get yourself out of bed.  And then you wonder: “Do I have faith even the size of a mustard seed?”

Or maybe you are just paying attention to the news these past few weeks. The senseless violence that seems to be pervading our nation seeps into our own community as a young man shoots at some innocent passers-by. He wounds four and kills one. Or maybe you watched the presidential debate the other night and your thoughts turned toward despair about the future or our nation.

The psalmist says, “Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture” (Psalm 37:1-3). Who has faith strong enough to rest assured that the wicked will not prevail? Who has not woken up in the middle of the night and been unable to get back to sleep because you have been reading the latest headlines? And then you think, but where is my faith in God? Do I have faith even the size of a mustard seed? Do I have faith enough not to fret when the wicked carry out their schemes?

Of course, upon some reflection, we all realize that Jesus speaks in hyperbole. He exaggerates for effect. But to what effect? Is he trying to point out our lack of faith? “You can’t even order a mulberry tree around! Oh you of little faith.”

Perhaps part of our problem is that we tend to think of faith in terms of measurements. We look at our grandmother, like Paul holding up Timothy’s grandmother Lois, or his mother, Eunice, and we remember her as a woman of great faith. The Saints all have great faith. They can be strong and bold and courageous because they have great faith. Perhaps we think of missionaries who head out into the unmapped jungle to spread the good news to unreached people groups. What great faith. But then we look at our faith and think of what we are willing to do for God and for the gospel. Oh Lord, “Increase our faith!”

But this feeling of despair is why Jesus tells the disciples about faith and the mulberry tree. Jesus’ response is an assurance, not an admonition. So what is behind this statement? Why does the apostle cry out, ‘Increase our faith’?

Jesus begins this section by warning his disciples that “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come.” Hopefully some of you remember that I preached on the parallel passage from Mark last year. The Greek word Jesus uses here is scandalon. “Scandals are bound to come.” The verb form, scandalizo, means to cause someone to stumble, to trip someone up. It can mean to cause someone to sin, but it can also mean to cause someone to fall away, or to lose faith, to lose trust in someone. When a politician is involved in a scandal, people lose faith in that politician. They no longer believe that they are qualified to represent them. Paul says in 1 Corinthians that Jesus is a stumbling block to Jews (1:13). God becoming human was a scandal, a stumbling block, a barrier to faith for many Jewish people. How could God take on flesh?

It is not a good thing to cause another person to sin, but to cause another person to lose their trust in God? To cause someone to lose hope in the Kingdom? To cause someone to no longer believe that God loves them? … What a terrible thing. “So watch yourselves,” Jesus says (3).

But then Jesus turns things around. Watch yourselves, he says, but be gracious and forgiving to others.  “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ’I repent,’ you must forgive them” (3-4).

Now I know how frustrated Roxann can get with me after she has reminded me two or three times to fix something that is broken around the house. I know how frustrated I can get when I have to ask Evan or Elise more than once or twice to pick up the dishes they left in the living room. But if I lied to Roxann not just once or twice, but seven times? In a day? And then had the nerve to come and ask for forgiveness? Now that would take a woman of great patience and grace. Someone like Roxann. But the rest of us? Who could do that? “Increase our faith, Lord!”

Somehow, from somewhere, we get this notion that the Christian life is about doing great things. We have picked up a motto from somewhere, “We’re going to make the church great again!” Maybe we think that as Christians we are supposed to imitate the life of Christ. Or maybe we can get by with just imitating the life of a saint, like Saint Paul. Or for those shooting really low, Saint Tim. But then we look at the life of Christ. We look at the miracles he performs. We look at all the wise things he says. We see his compassion for the poor and the sick and the outcast. We see his sinless life. We can’t hope to live up to that. “Oh Lord, increase our faith!”

But Jesus doesn’t call us to live up to his standards. He calls us to die up to his standards. In his second letter to Timothy Paul says “join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.” Jesus doesn’t call us to victory, to becoming great, but to suffering. And we do this by the power of God. Paul continues, “He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (1:8-10).

We are called to new life in Christ, but that new life comes from following Christ. It calls us first into death and only then into life. Faith in God, trust in God is at heart a dying to self. It is a dying to our own agendas. A dying to belief in our own powers or the powers of humanity. A dying to our desire to achieve greatness. To forgive someone doesn’t take great power; it takes a dying to your pride, a dying to your demand for vengeance, a dying to your own superior sense of righteousness. To forgive someone else takes faith that God is the one who will bring about justice. It is as the psalmist says, to “commit your way to the Lord,” to “refrain from anger and turn from wrath.” To do so takes faith, but not great faith. It takes faith only the size of a mustard seed.

You see, faith the size of a mustard seed is great faith … if it is faith in God. If it is faith in God it is faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, that Jesus took on the flesh of humanity, that he gave himself over to the powers of evil, both human and spiritual, that he died on a cross, but that God, the giver of life, the one who caused all that is to be out of nothing, that God raised this Jesus to life. Faith in God is faith that God is the source of all life and so has power over all things even over death itself. God doesn’t call us to a faith that lives up to the life of Jesus. He calls us to a faith that lives up to the death and then the resurrection of Jesus. And this is a gift. It is not our doing. Faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed, is planted in our hearts not by our good intentions nor by our seeking after God, but by the power of the Holy Spirit and by the grace of God. 

We might think that being holy, that loving others as Christ does, that forgiving others as God has forgiven us is beyond our capability. We may despair that we will never be able to do what God call us to do and to be. And we can’t. These things are beyond our ability. But do not despair. God doesn’t call us to greatness. He calls us to die. Have faith in God instead of faith in your own abilities, your own will power, your own righteousness. Instead have faith in God, even if you feel your faith is the size of a mustard seed. For when we put our faith in God, we die to ourselves. And when we die to ourselves, we will do great things, for then God in Christ Jesus will be at work in us and through us.

Gracious and merciful God, we praise and thank you that we do not have to  be perfect and sinless in order for you to love us. We do not have to impress you with our good deeds in order for you to look upon us with favor. We do not have to live up to any standard in order for you to seek us out. Thank you for your love and your grace that redeems us and saves us and that comes out of your own goodness and kindness. Grant us great faith the size of a mustard seed so that we may trust fully and only in your goodness and love shown to us in Jesus Christ, so that we may die to ourselves and be born anew in Christ Jesus by whom and through whom you are reconciling the world to yourself. For it is in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

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September 25, 2016 The Good Confession
(1 Timothy 6:6-19) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] So if you were walking down the street one day and you saw this [a sign for a playground], what would it tell you? What about this? [holds up signs for a church, swimming, an airport, a hospital, and a school]. So a sign is a picture or words that you where something is. If we want to go someplace, like the school, or a swimming pool, or a playground, but we don’t know how to get there, we can look for a sign that will tell us which way to go.

In our Bible reading today we are going to read from a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy. Paul says to him, “Take hold of eternal life.” (1 Timothy 6:12).  He tells him to live his life as if Jesus had already come back. Remember we talked a while ago about the Kingdom of God, that when Jesus comes back he will make all things good and right and beautiful, and how no one would be mean to anyone else or hurt anyone else? Paul tells Timothy to begin living in the Kingdom of God now, to begin living as if Jesus really were the king.

How do you think you could live in a way that says that Jesus is the King? How could we live in a way that says Jesus is the King?  Now, I would like you each take one of these blank signs. Later, you can make a drawing of how we could live to show others that Jesus is king, and then you can put an arrow on the sign as well. You see, when we act in ways that show that Jesus is King, we become signs of God’s Kingdom. If people don’t know about God’s Kingdom or how to get there, our lives can be signs to help point the way to Jesus and his Kingdom. [End}

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When I looked over the passages for this morning, I thought maybe I had better not preach about the rich man and Lazarus to a relatively wealthy congregation. We are celebrating 15 years together. I would like to stay at least a few more.

On a more serious note, I did think that our passage from 1 Timothy is a bit more suited to our purposes today. Paul writes to Timothy to give him pastoral advice on how to be the pastor of a local church. He has all kinds of advice about worship, about choosing and appointing elders and deacons, about how to care for widows and how to instruct slaves and elders regarding their positions. It’s much about church administration.

But wrapped around these concerns for the administration of the church, Paul includes some warnings. In chapter 1 he warns about those who teach false doctrines concerning genealogies and other myths. If you look at verse 3 of chapter 6, you can see that our passage actually begins with a second warning concerning false doctrine: “If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree with the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing.” He then goes on to warn about the temptations of wealth. Apparently I can’t get out of talking about wealth this week.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Paul moves from warning about false doctrines to warnings about the temptations of wealth. At the heart of the Christian faith is, well, faith. Trust in God is the beginning and end of the Christian faith. But not just belief in God, a trust in God, who as Paul says in verse 13, “gives life to everything.”  It is a trust in the Maker of heaven and earth that leads us to obey God in all things no matter what the cost. It is a trust that follows in the footsteps of Jesus who, as Paul says again in verse 13, “while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession.” That is, while Jesus’ life was on the line, while Pilate was considering whether to crucify him or not, Jesus remained faithful to God. He continued to confess his trust in God and he backed that up with his very life. He remained obedient to God even to his death.

Well if trust in God is at the heart of the Christian faith, wealth is one of the most common things that leads us away from faith. It leads the rich away from faith because it lures us to put our hope and our trust in our wealth. We begin to believe in our own ability to make what we want with our own lives. Whether we have wealth or if we are poor, we can be duped into believing that with just enough money we can be the captains of our own ship and determine our own destiny.

Like wealth, false doctrines lead us to put our trust, our hope, our faith in something other than God. They lead us to confess that we can grab hold of life that is truly life, as Paul says, in verse 19, by grabbing on to something other than God. They lead us to practices and rituals and laws that we perform in order to grab hold of true life, rather than trust in the grace of God. They teach us false things about God so that what we end up putting our trust in what is not God, but some god we have concocted ourselves. We end up worshipping and following something that is not the one true God “who gives life to everything.” But when we worship that which does not give life, we cannot hope to grab hold of true life

So Paul says to Timothy, “But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Live in such a way that your life gives expression to the confession you make with your lips. Live in such a way that the hope you have for eternal life, for that which is true life, becomes evident in all you do: pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. It is in these virtues that people see what life is supposed to be like. It is through love and faith and gentleness that people get a glimpse of the age that is to come.

Paul ends his letter here because this is where he started. If you turn back to chapter 1, notice that after he warns about false teachings, he lifts up himself in verse 12 as an example of faithfulness. But Paul is an example of faithfulness not because of his own efforts, but because of God’s great mercy. In verse 15 he says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. It is for this very reason that I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” What Jesus has done in Paul’s life is for the sake of making Paul an example, a sign, to others so that his life might point to Jesus, to his kingdom and to eternal life, or life that is truly life.

So Paul begins and ends his letter to Timothy with warnings about false doctrines and temptations that pull Christians away from a good and true confession about Jesus. He then holds himself up as an example, a sign pointing to eternal life, and he urges Timothy to live his life as a sign pointing to eternal life. He begins and ends this way because everything else Paul talks about in his letter is for the benefit of this good confession. Worship, how elders and deacons are chosen, how the church cares for widows, how slaves are to behave, all the business of the church should enable us in our life together as the church to make the good confession and to live the good confession “as an example for those who would believe on [Jesus] and receive eternal life.”

This morning we are celebrating 15 years of ministry together. It is a good time to reflect on what our main purpose is in being Hessel Park Church. And it is the same as the task Paul puts before Timothy and his church. We are to do whatever we do together as church – worship, small groups, Sunday school, potlucks and Adult education – in order to build one other up in faith and faithfulness so that our lives reflect the confession we make so that others might see in us something of the eternal life that we have grabbed on to. Our purpose is to be signs of the Kingdom pointing to Jesus. We are to be witnesses so that others might put their faith in Christ and thus grab hold of life that is truly life.

Now many of us, myself included, start to get a bit worried at this point. We say we don’t know how to do evangelism. For that is what we are talking about – confessing the good news with lips and lives. But we are maybe a bit uncomfortable with evangelism. We are not gifted in evangelism like some. We come up with all kinds of excuses. But there are many ways to be witnesses of Christ and his kingdom.

When Rachel approached us about celebrating our 15th anniversary and Roxann and my 25th wedding anniversary, we began to wonder how we could do so and include our friends who were not from Hessel Park. We began thinking of the party we held at our house last night. But immediately the purpose for that party was not just to celebrate our anniversaries. We wanted it to be an opportunity where some of those friends who are not Christians might get a sense of what life in Christ was like. We hoped that at our party they would come to meet and know a community of Christians who point to Christ and the Kingdom.

And that is what happened last night. Our friends saw a diverse community of Christians from many different nations living together as one. They met Christians who “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.”  They met Christians who break the stereotype of stark, judgmental, and ignorant people so often portrayed as Christians in the media. Instead they met very kind and loving people. They met extremely intelligent and thoughtful people. They met people who like to laugh and have fun. They met a community of people who are grasping on to the eternal life we have in Jesus Christ. In 2 Corinthians Paul calls the Corinthian church his letter of recommendation. Last night, in short, you were our “good confession.” You were our confession that we hope in Christ and have taken hold of eternal life.

But now we are each faced with the task of carrying our good confession into our work places and our social spaces. How shall we do that? Earlier this morning I asked you to think of issues in your life, people in your life, or tasks that you face that are troubling you, or that you are happy about, or that you are anxious over. Now let me ask you, how has God addressed those issues in and through the worship service this morning? Did you raise them up during the congregational prayer? Did you praise God for your joys during the singing? Did you confess your anger and resentment during the time of confession? Did you open your heart to receive God’s word of forgiveness and his grace? How has God spoken to you about the concerns of your life? … And how has God prepared you to leave this place and to face your troubles, to celebrate your joys, to tackle your project?

If you have listened and received God’s grace, I believe God has in some way equipped you to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” I believe God equips us in worship to better grasp on to eternal life, life that is true life, and so to be “an example for those who would believe on Jesus and receive eternal life.”  My friends, this is our calling. It is an honor and a joy to pursue this together. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Prayer: Holy Spirit, Living Breath of God. (Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend)

Holy Spirit, living Breath of God, breathe new life into my willing soul.

Bring the presence of the risen Lord to renew my heart and make me whole.

Cause your Word to come alive in me, give me faith for what I cannot see;

Give me passion for your purity; Holy Spirit, breathe new life in me. Amen.

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September 18, 2016 The Wealth of Discipleship
(Luke 16:1-13) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Who can tell me what this is?  What might you use this for? It’s a broom handle. But you could also attach it to another type of broom, like this. Or your could attach it to a mop.  So that is what it was made for, but what else could you use it for? We have a basketball hoop in our driveway that you can raise and lower with a broom handle. It could be a weapon. You could use it as a walking stick. Or a cane. If you attach some fishing line to it, it could be a fishing pole. There are all kinds of ways you can use this pole other than what it was made for aren’t there?

Now what could you do with this? [$10] You could do a lot of things with this too, couldn’t you? You could buy your favorite snack. A toy. Go to a movie. There are all kinds of things you can do with money.

When we get money, we so often think of how I can spend that money on what I want. We think about ourselves first, don’t we? In our gospel reading Jesus calls money Mammon. He calls money a god. He warns us that people often worship money like we worship God. When we use money only for ourselves, we end up worshipping money. So do you think there are other ways you could use money? You could buy presents for your teachers. You could take your friends to a movie. You could give it to someone who was poor. [End]

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So Jesus tells us a story about a dishonest manager.  He cheats his master not once, but twice. The master, however, is impressed by the manager. Instead of punishing the manager even more, he commends the dishonest manager. He probably gives him a promotion.

So what is the moral of the story? Jesus says, “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” So is Jesus telling us to be dishonest with money? Should we steal from our employers and use that money to throw a party so that we can make friends? Is Jesus telling us that as Christians we are called to a different moral standard than everyone else so we can get away with breaking the rules of this world for the sake of eternity? How do we make any sense of this parable?

As always, we should look first to the surrounding context of the parable. Last week we read the preceding chapter and the three “lost” parables: the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, or if you read to the end, the lost sons. Each of these parables, however, really tells the story of those who seek out the lost. They are the parables of the seeking shepherd, the searching woman, and the prodigal father. The son may be prodigal with money, but the father is prodigal with grace. His forgiveness is “recklessly extravagant” and “lavish.”

So the preceding story is about money, which our parable today is about, but it is also about grace. Notice that the parable at the end of chapter 16, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, is also about money and grace. The rich man is stingy with his money, but then he wants Lazarus to be lavish with grace. So if the parables that surround the parable of the dishonest manager are both about money and grace, perhaps we should expect our parable to be not just about money, but also about grace.

Second, we should remind ourselves of what a parable is and what a parable is not. A parable is not a fable. It is not a short story that teaches us a moral. A parable is not like the story of the tortoise and the hare that teaches us that working slow and steady is the best way to go. When Jesus says “use worldly wealth to gain friend for yourselves,” we have to be careful not to understand that as the “moral” of the story even though it really looks like Jesus is giving us the moral of the story.

Parables are not fables; they are comparisons that open up to us a different way of looking at reality. The Pharisees are disgusted that Jesus eats with sinners. They assume that God is disgusted with sinners. So Jesus tells them three parables that reveal the true nature of God. He is like a shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep. He is like the woman who searches for her lost coin. He is like the father who runs down the road to embrace his long lost son. There is no “moral” to each of these parables. Instead they reveal the true nature of God so that we might be changed and live by that reality instead of the false reality we had been living by.

So first, the surrounding context hints to us that this parable may be not only about money, but also about grace. And second, we should not look for a moral to the parable; we should expect the parable to open reality up to us in a new way.

So what is the new reality Jesus is talking about? What is the old reality Jesus is talking about? Well, before the quote that sounds like the moral of the story, Jesus says in verse 8 “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” Here Jesus makes it obvious that this is not a fable with a moral. He compares two different kinds of people – the people of this world and the people of the light.

Let me suggest that Jesus is not only comparing two different kinds of people, but two different kingdoms. Jesus makes this clear in verse 13 when he says, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Mammon, or the god of Money.”  Jesus compares the kingdom of this world with the Kingdom of God. Do you serve the idols of this world like Mammon, or do you serve the God of Creation? Within which kingdom do you live?

The parable, then, is situated in the kingdom of this world. This is how “people of this world” behave. People in this world deal with the currency of this world. The most obvious currency of this world is money. We say, “Money makes the world go ‘round.” Mammon, as Jesus points out, is the god of this world, or at least one of the most worshipped gods of this world.

There is, however, a second currency in the world of Jesus’ day. A few weeks ago we read of when Jesus was at a dinner party and he noticed how all the guests fought for the best places and that the host had invited all the important people in the town and people who could invite him back. Jewish society in Jesus’ day was in part determined by patronage. If you were poor or lower class, you sought to establish a relationship with someone more powerful and more wealthy. Your patron would elicit favors from you, or, really, demand some form of service from you. In turn, if you found yourself in a tight spot, you could go to your patron and ask him or her for some help. Of course the person in power benefitted more from this system. You could think of it as an expensive form of insurance for the weak and poor.

Now if you read the parable, you can easily see that it’s not just about money. The dishonest manager re-writes the debts of his master’s creditors in order to obligate them to him within this complex system of patronage. He has done them a huge favor. He has sort of become a temporary patron of them. Now they owe him a future favor. And he will be sure to collect.

We find it inconceivable that the master commends the manager after he finds out that he has cheated him not once but twice. But this makes more sense when we see that the manager is dealing in this other currency, the currency of patronage. He is shrewd because he uses his master’s money to build his own capital in terms of patronage.  And this is exactly what Jesus says in verse 9: “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves.”

But remember, this is not a fable. This is not the moral of the story. Parables are analogies. He is not telling us to act in the same way with the currency of this world. He is not telling us to cheat our employers in order to gain friends. He is not calling us to do this because he calls us to live in a different reality. We are not to live in the reality of “this world,” according to the currencies of “this world,” just as the “people of this world” do. We are not to worship Mammon.

No, those who seek to be disciples of Christ must live according to a deeper reality, a truer reality, the reality of the Kingdom of God. And the currencies of the Kingdom of God are not money and patronage (and I would add physical force), but grace, love, and service.  In the Kingdom of God money, patronage and force are worth little to nothing. You cannot force your way into the Kingdom. You cannot ingratiate yourself to God enough to enter the Kingdom. You cannot buy your way into the Kingdom These are not “currency” in the Kingdom of God; they are idols. So Jesus says, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” If we, his disciples, can be trusted to use what is truly worth little, we can be trusted with what is worth much. Again, he says, “If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches.” If you don’t know how to handle the currency of this world rightly, how can you be trusted to handle the currency of the Kingdom of God?

But how are we supposed to handle the currency of this world? What are we to do with money, power, and prestige? Well, let’s take another look at the parable. The dishonest manager deals in the currency of this world. He uses money to build his social capital, his capital in the system of patronage. But notice that he doesn’t only use money and patronage. He uses another form of currency. What does he actually do? He forgives the debts of his master’s creditors. He deals in the currency of the Kingdom of God. He uses grace to build his own social capital. Perhaps he uses grace illicitly. But that’s the point. He breaks the rules of the game.

So what are the rules of the game? In this world the rules of the game are that you use your money to build up your social capital. You buy a big house to appear successful. You send your child to an expensive college so that they can get a boost to their career. You use money to buy fashionable clothes and the latest electronic gadgets so that you can appear to be popular and successful. And, of course, you invest your money in the stock market or a business so that you can earn more money. Those are the rules of the game of this world. In this world you play the game with money and so you worship money. You trust in money. You have faith in money. If you live according to the reality of this world, Mammon is your god.

Jesus holds up the dishonest manager as someone who is shrewd and wily according to the rules of this world. But he calls us to live into a different reality. A truer reality. The Reality of the Kingdom of God. And so he calls us to be shrewd like the dishonest manager, but to do so according to the rules and with the currency of the Kingdom of God. When he says, “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves.” We have to insert some quotes: “use ‘worldly wealth’ to ‘gain friends.’” Be something like the dishonest manager, but do so in terms of the Kingdom of God and not the kingdom of this world.

The dishonest manager used money, patronage and grace for gain in the kingdom of this world. Just so, Jesus calls us to use the currencies of this world in terms of the currencies of the Kingdom of God. Use money as a means of grace, love and service. Break the rules of this world. There are so many more ways to use money than for our own enrichment and benefit. There are so many ways you can serve others with your money. There are so many ways you can use money to love others. Be shrewd in dealing with money. Use it not according to ways of this word, but according to the ways of the Kingdom of God. You cannot buy your way into the Kingdom of God. But through grace, love, and service you can store up for yourself treasures for eternity.

So the dishonest manager uses grace to make gains for himself. His manager finds out and, instead of punishing him twice over, he forgives him. Sometimes, even in the competitive, dog-eat-dog reality of this world, grace begets grace. Sometimes the truer reality of the Kingdom of God breaks through into this world. So which reality will you live by? What kind of kingdom do you hope to build for yourself? Do you hope to become rich, powerful and popular in this world? Will you put your trust in Mammon? Or can you trust God enough to spend your money, your power, and your prestige for the sake of grace, love, and service? Can you trust God enough to live into the reality of his Kingdom? In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

O God, you are rich in love for all people.

Show us the treasure that endures

and, when we are tempted by worldly treasures,

remind us of your lavish mercy.

Call us back into your service

and make us worthy to be entrusted

            with the wealth that never fails.

We ask this through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.

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September 11, 2016 The Heart of Discipleship
(Luke 15) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Does everyone know what this ring is? Who do you think gave it to me? This is no ordinary ring. It’s my wedding ring and Roxann gave it to me. It’s very special to me, isn’t it? Well soon after Roxann and I were married, I went to Graduate school. One day I was walking to class up a snow covered hill when I slipped. My hand fell into the snow and when I pulled it out, I realized that my ring had slipped off. Immediately I looked right where I had slipped. I dug away the snow around where my hand had landed. And I couldn’t find it. Well I was late for class, so I had to go.

After class I called the campus maintenance department and this man met me where I fell with a metal detector. We waved that metal detector all up and down the hill and over the place I fell a dozen times, but we still could not find the ring.  I felt just terrible, but there wasn’t anything more I could do.

Now when I got home, I had to tell Roxann that I had lost my ring. So we thought about what we could do. We could go to a jewelry store and buy a new ring. That would have been hard on us because we didn’t have much money at the time. But neither of us wanted to do that. We didn’t want a replacement ring. We wanted this ring back. This ring had special meaning for us. Buying a new ring just wouldn’t be the same. So we waited. We waited two or three weeks until the snow melted. And as soon as it melted I went right to the same spot early in the morning, as soon as it was light. And there it was. My ring was just sitting in the mud. You can imagine how happy Roxann and I were that I found my lost ring.

Jesus once told a parable that tells us something of what God is like. “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?  And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’” In the same way, Jesus tells us, God seeks out all those who belong to him. And when he finds them, there is great rejoicing in heaven. [End]

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What does it mean to be lost? I suppose the first thing that comes to mind, at least for Christians, is the image of the Prodigal Son. To be lost is to be a sinner. It is to be someone who has turned away from God and his ways and who lives a hedonistic, party-all-the-time life. Women, or men, as the case may be, booze, and whatever will make you happy. At least for tonight.

We have probably all known someone like that. I certainly knew a few people who came close to that in college.  Maybe you are familiar with this image of being lost because the shoe fits. Maybe you went through a prodigal period in your life. In any case, we are all familiar with this image of being lost. The lost sinner.

There are other ways of being lost, however. Jesus begins this series of three parables with a story about a lost sheep. The image of a lost sheep brings to mind a different kind of “lostness” than the prodigal son. I don’t think the shepherd found the lost sheep hiding out in a ravine hanging out with a gang of goats and drinking beer. The lost sheep wasn’t necessarily willfully lost. Sheep don’t think, “I know where there is better grass to eat or a cooler stream to drink from,” and then set off down a different trail. Sheep get lost by just not paying attention, by wandering off. Or maybe they get lost because something draws their attention away from the flock. They see a nice patch of grass a little bit away from the others, so they amble over, but after a few bites they see another patch of grass. And then they are thirsty and think they hear a trickle of a stream beyond that rock over there. A sheep could be lost for hours without realizing it.

Maybe many people in this world are lost not because they are sinners like the prodigal son, but simply because they wandered away from God. Part of our problem is that we have a narrow understanding of sin. We may be more like the Pharisees than we think. They seemed to have a particular disdain for those people they called “sinners.” They didn’t think to highly of anyone who didn’t keep God’s laws as strictly as they did, but they had a special disdain for tax-collectors, prostitutes and other “sinners.”  Jesus’ imagery of the lost sheep, however, stands to remind us that there are less obvious, less depraved ways to be lost. There are other ways to be “sinners.”

There is more to sin, you see, than just breaking God’s commandments. To sin in the Hebrew sense of the word is to miss the mark. We humans have missed the mark in countless ways aside from breaking specific commandments. The sin of Adam and Eve wasn’t just that they disobeyed God’s specific commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree. They sinned by attempting to go their own way. By eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they laid claim to their moral independence from God. The serpent told them that if they ate they would be like God and know good and evil. They missed the mark by attempting to set up their own mark.

The point of the story of Adam and Eve is that it is our story. It is the human story. We all like sheep have gone astray. Some of us may go astray in a dramatic fashion like the Prodigal Son, but many of us have just wandered away from God’s desire for us and attempted to achieve our own moral and spiritual independence from God.  The story of Adam and Eve and then the story of Israel is the story of how humanity as a whole has wandered away from God’s desire for us. It is not just individuals who are lost sheep. Humanity like sheep has gone astray.

But one of the points of all three of these parables is that however lost we have become, God seeks us. God loves those who are lost. All of them. God desires to welcome us sinners home. This comes to the fore in the parable of the coins.

It could be that the parable depicts a rather poor woman. She only has ten coins, or drachma, which was worth a day’s wage. Now instead of ten days of security, the woman only has nine. If that is the case, this parable teaches us how extremely valuable we are to God. He, like the woman, is willing to tear the house apart in order to find us.

Other scholars suggest that the coin could have been part of a set of ten coins. Woman often received a headdress that contained 10 coins for their wedding. The headdress symbolized their status and their position as a married woman. The headdress functioned like a wedding ring today. Now which of you would exchange your wedding ring for the dollar value of the ring? Maybe one or two of us, but my wedding ring is much more valuable to me than what it’s worth to another person. It symbolizes my marriage to Roxann like no other object can. Even if you were to offer to replace it with a ring that was worth twice as much, I would keep this ring. So when the woman loses the one coin, she is not just losing 10% of her wealth. She is losing much more than monetary value of the coins, she is losing whole sentimental value of the headdress. The lost coin has a value way beyond its individual worth.

Moreover, this parable shifts the perspective of what it means to be lost. When we think of being lost, we may think about how we have lost our way, how we have made a wrong turn and ended up in unfamiliar or dangerous territory. To be lost from our perspective is to have gotten ourselves lost. We are only lost when we don’t know where we are or how to get where we want to be. From the woman’s perspective in the parable, however, the coin is lost because it belongs to a greater whole. From God’s perspective it doesn’t matter whether or not we know we are lost. Our being lost is not a function of our desire. From God’s perspective, if we are not reconciled to him, we are lost because we belong to him.

We have a new banner up this week that reminds us of the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism: “What is my only comfort in life and in death?” Answer, “That I am not my own but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ.” To be lost is to be a sheep separated from the flock, a coin fallen off a headdress, a son or daughter estranged from a family. To be lost is to be a human alienated from God. We are lost because we belong to God.

So we can be lost through our own willful sinfulness. We can be lost because we have somehow, perhaps unknowingly, wandered away from God. We are lost because we belong to God

Now Jesus tells this parable to a group of Pharisees. They criticize him for eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” The Pharisees are secure in their own righteousness. They are sure that they are not lost. They believe they are right with God and that their job is to inform those who are not right with God that they need to get right with God.

There is then, yet another way to be lost. The Pharisees are lost because they don’t realize that they still need to be found. They are lost because they don’t recognize that we are all lost in one way or another, and to some degree or another. When the Prodigal Son returns home, the Father’s magnanimous welcome party only begins the path toward full reconciliation. Imagine this scenario: After a couple hours of the party the son pulls his dad aside and says, “Hey Dad, thanks so much for this party. You have been so great to me after all I have done to you. But you don’t mind, do you, if I head out for a while. I just got a text from the guys and they are all at the bar. This party is great and all, but you know I haven’t seen my friends for like five whole years. OK. See you in the morning?, Oh, and can I borrow $20?” Is that an image of a son reconciled to his father?

No. The father has welcomed the son home and rejoiced with a huge party. But the son must still live into his repentance. Each of the first two parables ends in the same way, “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Repentance means to turn and go a different direction. It is not a one-time event. The son must change his whole way of life for the course of his life for there to be true reconciliation. He must become a responsible member of the family. He must take up the tasks of a faithful son, and that will take time. Perhaps even a lifetime.

Thus we are all in some sense, to some degree or another, lost. If we are not attempting to walk with God, if we have spurned his ways and are trying to set our own course, then we are very lost. But even if we have been reconciled with God, we must continue to find all those areas of our heart that we try to close off from God, all those places in our lives where we still struggle to maintain our independence from God. All those ways we have yet to receive God’s gracious and loving embrace. And so if we don’t recognize our own “lostness,” then we are not only lost, but blind as well.

I have entitled this sermon, “The Heart of Discipleship.” Last week we read the preceding section in Luke, where Jesus addresses the cost of discipleship. Here Jesus confronts the Pharisees who consider themselves to be true followers, or disciples, of God. But the heart of a true disciple must first of all recognize that it is lost. To be a disciple means to know our own need for God to find us and our reliance on the grace of God. “I am not my own but belong – body and soul, in life and death – to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ.”  We need God not only to find us, but to walk us home.

And thanks be to God, that God is not like the image of God held by the Pharisees. God is not a distant judge waiting to condemn all those sinners who have wondered off. He is like a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to find the one. God is like a woman who tears apart her house to find her the precious coin that belongs to her. Sometimes we may wonder, then, why all the lost haven’t been found. Well God is also like a Father whose son has disowned him. He knows that if he just shows up in his son’s life, the son will run further away. So God is somethings like a brooding Father who sits on the front porch worrying about his long lost son, wondering if he will ever come home. And when he sees him, he abandons all decorum, gathers up his robes and runs out to meet him. Before the prodigal son can get through his apology, the Father is calling out orders to throw a huge party to celebrate: “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

And God is like that Father, and that shepherd, and that woman, who calls up all his family and neighbors to celebrate with him that what was lost to him has been found, that a sinner has repented and come home. But there are still others who are lost in yet another way. There are those who resent that the lost have been found. There are those who believe the lost should never be found. Maybe there are those who think that the lost don’t need to be found. There are those who are therefore lost because they don’t have a heart like the heart of God. They do not have a heart for those who are lost.

The heart of discipleship is to know, first of all, that we all like sheep have gone astray. We are all in some way lost. We may be in the process, by the grace of God, of making our way home, but the heart of a disciple knows its continued dependence of God’s grace. And so, second, the heart of discipleship is to know that you belong to God. It is to see your lostness from God’s perspective. You are lost just because you don’t know where you are. You are lost because you are not where you belong. That, then, leads to the third characteristic of the heart of discipleship. If you have truly come to know God’s grace for yourself, you will come to know that it is for all those who are lost.  You will come to have a heart fashioned after the image of God’s heart. The heart of discipleship is to have a heart for the lost. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Undaunted you seek the lost, O God,

exultant you bring home the found.

Touch our hearts with grateful wonder

at the tenderness of your forbearing love.

Grant us delight in the mercy that has found us,

and bring all to rejoice at the feast of forgiveness.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

God forever and ever. Amen.        

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September 4, 2016 The Cost of Discipleship
(Luke 14:25-33) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Now some of you may remember that I did something similar a few years ago. So if you do, don’t give anything away. First, I would like you to try this cracker. [Gives each piece of cracker] Now, I would like you to try a bite of this cracker [Gives each a cracker from a different bowl]. Now which cracker did you like better? Do you know why? What is different? The second one had salt on it, didn’t it? Now, let me ask you this. [Pulls out a bowl of salt with a spoon]. You liked the cracker with the salt more than the cracker without the salt. But would you like to eat a bowlful of salt?

Jesus tells his disciples, “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?”  He is basically telling them that they need to be like salt. We use salt to add flavor to other foods, but few people like just the taste of salt by itself. In a similar way, to be a disciple of Jesus we should not think so much about ourselves. And we shouldn’t think mainly about how we can do things to get what we want. Instead, we should think more about others and how we can help them. Salt makes other food taste better. Jesus’ disciples help other people to live better lives. [End]

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“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother … he cannot be my disciple.” Really, Jesus? Is that really what Jesus means? Does Jesus truly require us to hate our parents? And not only our parents, for he goes on: “and his wife and children, and brothers and sisters.” How can this be? The Apostle John writes, “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them” (1 John 3:15).

To hate means to loath, to abhor, to detest, to oppose. If you hate something you seek to avoid it if possible and you work against it is not possible to avoid it. There are things that we as Christians should hate: our own sin, the evil in the world that causes wars and poverty and oppression. But our own parents, brothers and sisters, wife and children? Jesus can’t mean that we are to avoid them, to run away from them, or to oppose them, can he?

No, I don’t think that is what he is saying. It contradicts so much of what Jesus teaches. Is not the greatest command to love God above all else and your neighbor as yourself? Are we supposed to exclude our children from the command? Jesus commands us to love our enemies. How then can he command us to hate our families? Should I be spend all my time volunteering for Big Brother or Big Sister and mentor a child who doesn’t have a father instead of spending my time with my kids. Should I abandon Evan and Elise to show love to a stranger? That doesn’t make any sense.

So what can Jesus mean? Biblical scholars will point to Malichi 1:2-3 which Paul quotes in Romans 9:13, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” They will also tell you that the sense of this saying in the Hebrew is that God didn’t hate Esau, but that he showed preference to Jacob. He chose Jacob to be the one through whom his covenant promises would be realized. He loved Jacob more, loved Esau less. Now many might have issue with God choosing one over another and loving one nation over another, but that is a different sermon.  But maybe Jesus does not ask us to abhor, detest, despise and oppose our families, but to love them less than Jesus himself.

But that lets us off the hook, doesn’t it? Oh, we say, OK, I can love my family a little less than Jesus, and then I am in. I can manage to make sure and show my due diligence to Jesus, to make sure and go to church every Sunday, to have my quiet time reading the bible regularly, to say my prayers. I can make sure and give Jesus some quality time every week to show that I love him more than my family. Or maybe we show Jesus we love him more by how much we put in the offering plate. Or maybe we show Jesus that we love him more by how much time we spend volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. As long as we just have to show Jesus that we love him a little bit more than my parents and my wife and my children and by siblings, I am good to go.

But why, then, does Jesus put it so starkly? Jesus continues and says in verse 27, “whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Loving Jesus just a little bit more than our families doesn’t sound like much of a cross. To follow Jesus must be costly.

And so Jesus warns us that we had better know the true cost of following him before we sign up. If you are going to build a new house, you had better make sure you can afford it before you start. Otherwise you are going to be at risk of losing your house. Do not Presidents consider carefully if they can win a war before deciding to go to war? Well, I have my doubts about how confident Presidents should be in their conclusions about whether they can win a war or not, but I don’t doubt that they gather as much intelligence as they can and have it analyzed by military personnel, by the State Department, by economists, by the Intelligence agencies, and they probably ask some political scientists and historians to weigh in as well. Whatever Jesus means, he says we had better know the cost of discipleship if we would come and follow him. And we had better know that the cost is steep.

So Jesus says “If anyone comes to me and does not hate [their family] cannot be my disciple.” Jewish life centered on the family. Your family determined your place within society. Your family played a huge role in determining your social and economic status. Women and children gained their place in society through their connection with their husbands and fathers. When Israel came into the land of Canaan, a portion of the land was given to each family. This land was then passed down from generation to generation. Your connection to your family cemented your connection to all the promises God made to Abraham and to his children. Your very identity as an Israelite came through your connection to your family.

Family provided your identity, and it also provided your safety net. Naomi, in the Book or Ruth, looks to a kinsman to redeem her and Ruth out of poverty. God’s law commanded the Israelites to look after orphans, widows and foreigners because those were the people who did not have the normal safety net. They were the ones who needed special help and protection.  In Jewish society, people trusted in their families for their protection and safety.

When Jesus calls us to be his disciples, he calls us to follow him. He calls us to do as he does. He calls us to put our faith and trust where he does, and to derive our identity from the place he does. Jesus placed his faith and trust in God the Father. His identity came from God’s plan for him to be Israel’s Messiah and the savior of the world.

When Jesus calls us to be his disciples, he is calling us to place our faith and our trust in God alone. He calls us to derive our identity, our status, our place in the world through our relationship with God. The family provided those things in Jewish society. Being from various cultures, we may derive those things from various places. Some of us may place our trust and derive our identities from our families. Others derive them from their occupation. They find their identity in being a professor, or a teacher, and that is where they find their security. Others derive their identity and place their trust in a nation. But whatever it may be, Jesus calls us to “hate” that very thing in order to be his disciple.

Jesus calls us to place our faith and trust in God, and so he calls us home. He calls us to that place and that relationship for which we were created in the first place. St. Augustine famously prayed, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” We all set our hearts upon something. We all put our faith and our hope in something. We all derive our identity from somewhere. And unless that place is in God, we will always be wanting. We will always be striving for security. We will always be searching for who we truly are. We will always be aching, for that something will always come up short. We will never be satisfied, for whatever else we put our trust in is not our creator. It cannot know our needs as God does. It cannot protect us as God does. It does not love us as perfectly as God does.

Perhaps it would be best to translate “to hate” as “to disregard.” “If anyone comes to me and does not disregard his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – they cannot be my disciples.” We should disregard our families, our occupations, our nation, when it comes to our identity and our security in life. These things cannot provide what we so often seek from them, so we must disregard them, and yes, we must disregard even our own lives, and place our faith and trust in God.

If we interpret “to hate” as “to disregard,” we avoid the problematic connotations of detesting and opposing our families, but it doesn’t let us off the hook like “loving less” can. It is costly to disregard those things in life we turn to for our identity and our security. It costs us, as Jesus says, our very selves, for until we do disregard our families, our occupations, or our nation and follow Jesus, our very selves will be caught up in one or more of those things. Our hearts will be set on them and we will derive our identity from them. To disregard them, therefore, will be to disregard how we have come to know ourselves.

Instead of finding our identity and our security in the things of this world - our families, our occupations, our nations - God calls us home to find our identity and our security in him. Knowing that he loves us and desires us to become the most we can be, he enables us to find our identity in Jesus. And as Jesus finds his identity in God’s plan for him to be Messiah and Savior, so we find our identity in what God desires of us. We find our identity in doing God’s will. We find our identity in participating in God’s mission to the world. He sends us out into the world as salt. We are sent like Jesus to lose our lives for others in order to enhance their lives and their fruitfulness. In this way we are like salt, bringing the flavor of God’s kingdom into the lives of those around us. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Almighty God, your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ did not consider equality with you as something to be held on to. But he gave up his heavenly glory. He took on human flesh. And he remained obedient to you even unto death, a death upon a cross. Therefore you raised him from the dead and gave him the name that is above every name. Grant us faith that enables us to trust you with our lives, love that enables us to give our lives as salt to your world, and hope that knows that in dying we are born to eternal life. We pray in the name of Jesus Amen.

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August 28, 2016 Humble Rewards
(Luke 14:1-14) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Once there was this girl named Brianna. One day Brianna came to school carrying for invitations to her birthday party. On Saturday she would be seven years old and her mom told her she could invite four friends to celebrate. At recess time she, of course, went first to her best friend, Akeno. She gave him the invitation and told him she had three more to give out. “Who else are you going to invite?” Akeno asked. “I have to invite Daniel,” said Brianna, “because he invited me to his birthday party.” “You should also invite Li-Mei,” said Akeno. “Everyone wants to be her friend, so if you invite her to your party maybe she will become friends with us.”

So that is what Brianna did. She walked over to Daniel and gave him an invitation. And then she got up the courage and walked over to Li-Mei and gave her an invitation. But when she turned to walk away, she bumped into Becky. “What’s that?” Becky asked, looking down at the invitation. Now you have to understand something about Becky. She didn’t have many friends. Brianna had hardly even talked to her before. During recess she mostly just played by herself on the swings.

As she looked at Becky and then at the invitation, several thoughts ran through Brianna’s head. “What will the other kids think of me if I invite Becky to my party?  Will Li-Mei still want to come? Becky doesn’t have any friends.” But then Brianna said, “It’s an invitation to my birthday party on Saturday.” And as she held it out, she said, “Want to come?” Becky reached out to take the invitation and her smile filled her face. And at that moment. Brianna could feel her heart grown within her.

This morning we are going to read in the bible about a time when Jesus was at a party. At one point in the party he told the host, ““When you have a [party], do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a [party], invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” [End]

I don’t know about you, but I find Jesus’ teaching this morning a bit confusing. When people start arriving at a dinner party, he notices that they are all maneuvering for the best places at the table. He tells them that they are being foolish and that what they should do is choose a lower place at the table so that the host will come in and move them to a higher place.

What confuses me is that on the one hand it seems like Jesus admonishes the guests for their pettiness in seeking the best place. On the other hand he tells them that the way to get the best place is to sort of play things cool. He seems to be saying that if you try gain honor for yourself by promoting yourself, you will be humbled. So the best way to gain honor for yourself is to act humbly, for then you will be honored. So is Jesus really admonishing the guests for their selfish actions, or is he telling them the best way to get what they are seeking?

Now the only way to truly understand what Jesus is getting at is to look at the broader contexts of this story, and there are two broader contexts. Frist let’s look at the social context. What is the social situation that Jesus is commenting on? And second, we will look at the literary context. How does Luke shape this story and its meaning within the context of his gospel?

So first, the social context. The first thing we have to realize is that social structure of Jesus’ day was very different from the North American context. Jesus did not live in a modern capitalist, democratic, and individualistic society. People did not assume that each individual was responsible for their own success due to hard work, intelligence and determination. No, Jesus lived in a society based upon patronage. Your social standing, and thus often your economic standing, depended upon who you knew and the connections you had. People depended on having a good relationship with someone else who was more wealthy and higher up in the social chain. You could go to this person if you needed help, but, of course, this person could extract even more favors from you since you owed them your place on the social ladder. It wasn’t what you knew, back then, it was who you knew and what they would do for you.

 This is why the guests at the Sabbath dinner are all jockeying for various places at the table. It mattered who you sat next to because this demonstrated your rank in society. The higher up the table you sat, the more you could demand from those below you and the greater favors you could ask of those above you.

Jesus is therefore not commenting on the petty antics of school children who all struggle to sit next to the popular kid. The seating arrangements have serious social and possible economic ramifications. To tell someone to play it cool by taking a lower seat so that, just maybe, the host will notice you are in the “wrong” place is very risky behavior. It is just as likely that the host will see you sitting in a lower place than expected and then just laugh a bit at your misfortune. You just somehow lost out in the game of life. Jesus undermines the system of patronage.  He suggests the unthinkable if you hope to be seated in a place of honor and prestige. He calls us to hope for something else.

So let us look, second, at the literary context of this passage. Now if you were here last week you may have noticed some similarities between this week’s gospel reading and last week’s reading. Both tell of Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath, the religious leaders showing disapproval, and Jesus using similar examples to back up his actions. Last week he pointed out that everyone would untie their ox to give it water on the Sabbath. This week he says that everyone would rescue an ox on the Sabbath. Both times Jesus demonstrates that the Sabbath is not about keeping a set of rules regarding what we can and cannot do on the Sabbath. It is about resting in God’s wholeness and in the fruitfulness of his creation.

Now if you look at the surrounding stories, you can see that Luke places two parallel story segments one after the other. The first goes from Chapter 13:1 through 13:30. The second runs from 13:31 through 14:24. Notice that each segment begins with a call to repentance and a criticism. Twice in 13:3 and 5 Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you too will perish.” He then drives the point home by telling a parable about a fig tree that fails to bear fruit. This is a thinly veiled criticism of the whole nation of Israel. Jesus is accusing God’s people of failing to bear fruit, of failing in their vocation to be a light to the world and so he calls them all to repent.

The second segment begins with a more veiled call to repentance, but includes a rather blatant criticism. In 13:34 Jesus laments “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.” That’s the criticism. “[H]ow often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” That’s the call to repentance. Shockingly, Jesus is claiming to be like God who in the Palms is portrayed as a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. But, the people are not willing. They are not willing to repent from their abuse of the prophets and turn to God who is found in Jesus.

Each sequence continues with a healing on the Sabbath. Jesus then tells two parables about the kingdom of God, which we will get to in a minute. Each sequence concludes with a surprising reversal of expectations with regard to the end times. The question in 13:23 is “Who will be saved?”  And in 14:15 it is “Who will feast in the Kingdom of God?” Basically each asks who will be among God’s people in the age to come. In 13:22-30 Jesus teaches that many who expect that they will be welcomed by God will be turned away. In the Parable of the Great Banquet in 14:15-23, Jesus sort of inverts the surprise. The people who one expects to be at the banquet, the rich land owners, all turn down the invitation. So the master fills the banquet hall with “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame,” and then with anyone his servants can find on the country roads and city alleyways. In each parable the first are last and the last are first.

So now that you see the parallels between these two series of stories, let’s look at the Kingdom parables. After Jesus heals the crippled woman, Jesus says in 13:19, “[The Kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.” And “It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Now if I were to ask you to describe a kingdom to me, what would you say? How would you describe your typical image of a kingdom? When I think of a kingdom, I think of an autocratic king surrounded by dozens of attendants and secretaries and nobles and other important people. I think of castle walls manned by the best nights in the country. I think of a large army and a cavalry that protects or perhaps expands the boarders of  the kingdom. That’s what I think of when I think of a kingdom. But Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed and a batch of yeast.

If we are followers of Jesus. If we have repented of following our own ways and sought shelter under the wings of the Almighty, if we are trying to live into the joy of God’s new creation, how do we live in a Kingdom that is like mustard seed? If we are going to be among those brought in to the feast in the kingdom of God, if we are not going to be among those who were too busy buying a cow to come to the feast, how do we live into a Kingdom that is like yeast worked through a batch of dough. In a typical kingdom in which power and prestige determine your fate, people jockey for a position next to the powerful at a Sabbath dinner, but Jesus teaches us that to live into his kingdom is to choose the lower position.

The way to live into the kingdom of God is through humility. If you are at a party, don’t try to sit next to the mayor, sit next to the woman scraping out a living waiting tables. If you throw a party, don’t invite your rich neighbors, but, the international students in your lab. If you invite your rich neighbors, they will invite you back, but the international student’s apartment is way too small to host a party. If you own a business, don’t pay your workers the going rate, pay them what they need to provide for their families. If you own a pharmaceutical company and produce a life-saving device, sell it not for the most you can get for it, but for what people can afford to pay. If you are a professor in a research university, list your grad student as the primary author on your joint paper. If you are a graduate student, choose your research not on what will gain you the most notoriety, but on what will contribute most to the good of society. In whatever you do, seek not the rewards of this world – money, position, prestige. Seek the rewards of the Kingdom of God.

I don’t think it is very controversial to argue that love is the chief Christian virtue. Jesus himself says that loving God and neighbor are the greatest commandments. The apostle John even defines God as love. If you think about most of the other virtues – kindness, gentleness, patience, and generosity – these are, in some way, particular expressions of love itself. Love is the end, the goal. Generosity and kindness are the forms love takes in different circumstances.

But in each of these virtues there is also another virtue that plays a role. And that is humility. To be patient calls for one to put aside one’s own agenda as you wait for another person to get up to speed. That is humility. Generosity demands that you put some of your own wants and desires to the side for the sake of someone else. That is humility. Kindness often calls you to put aside your anger and your frustration. That is humility. If love is the end of all of these virtues, humility is the pathway.

To be humble is to seek the rewards of the Kingdom of God instead of the rewards of this world. The rewards of this world – wealth, strength, power, prestige, and position – are gained by those who are diligent in striving for these things. They are gained by those who are looking after themselves. They are gained by those who are willing to take such things for themselves.

The rewards of the Kingdom of God, however, are given only to those who are willing to receive them. The rewards of the kingdom are God’s blessing and righteousness. The reward of the Kingdom is a right standing with God and a character fashioned in the likeness of God. The reward of humility is a heart that loves as God loves. The reward of humility are received only because and through the process of humility itself. As we put aside the desire for our own gain, as we put aside our striving for power or wealth or prestige, we are shaped by and into the character of God, the image of God in Christ Jesus. The reward of humility is to be remade into the likeness of the God who took on flesh and died on a cross to reconcile the world to himself. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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August 21, 2016 Everlasting Dawn
(Luke 13: 10-17; Isaiah 58:9b-14) There is no audio for this sermon.

Have you all noticed the first thing I do each Sunday to start the worship service? (I light the candle). Does anyone know what we call that candle and why it is special? (It is the Christ candle. It reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world, and that he gives us his “light” so that we can shine his light into the world.)

This morning is a special morning. This morning we are going to baptize baby Luke. Now does anyone know why we baptize people? What does baptism mean? (Jesus washes away our sins). Well, when we baptize someone I pour water on their head and I say, “I baptize you in the name of God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” To baptize someone in the name of God shows us that God sort of puts his name on us. He claims us as his children and he wants us to live in such a way that other people see something of what God is like.

And you know what I think is really neat?  Luke’s name can help us remember all this. Does anyone know what Luke’s name means? It means “Eternal Sunrise.” Hsien-Chih and Chichi gave him that name because they have put their hope in God’s Kingdom which comes like an eternal sunrise. This morning we are going to read from the book of Isaiah where it says that if you help those who are hungry or in danger “your light will rise in the darkness” (58:10). You see, when we help other people, when we help feed those who are hungry, or help those who don’t have a home, we give them hope, we also shine a bit of God’s Kingdom on them. The candle and Luke’s name both remind us that Jesus is the light of the world, and he wants us to shine his light upon others.  Can anyone think of other ways you can shine Jesus’ light on others? [End of children’s sermon]

It is a Saturday morning, the Sabbath, and people from all around pour into the synagogue to hear Jesus preach. Among the crowd, a woman, hunched over from years of a crippling disease, struggles to maintain a place where she can see Jesus. Looking at the commotion, Jesus sees the woman. He calls her forward and asks her how long she has been oppressed by the spirit that has crippled her. “Eighteen years,” she replies. “Woman,” he says to her, “you are set free from your infirmity.” He lays his hands on her and she immediately straightens up and begins praising God.

The synagogue leader steps forward, face reddening. “The Sabbath is a day of rest,” he proclaims. “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not the Sabbath.”

You hypocrites!” Jesus says as he notices all the heads in the crowd nodding in agreement. “Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath free your ox or your donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath from what bound her?” (Luke 13:10-17).

The Sabbath. The seventh day of God’s creation. The day when all of God’s work was done and on which he rested. The day that is marked out as holy in the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God … for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 19:8-11)

And so began the never ending debate about what God permits and forbids on the Sabbath. What is “work?”  What is “rest?” Is cooking “work?” It never did make sense to me when I was little how almost all the work that was considered “men’s work” was put aside on Sundays, but cooking the biggest meal of the week complete with a pot roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, rolls, vegetables, and a dessert was somehow exempt from the type of work forbidden on the Sabbath? And why were some forms of play allowed, but others, like swimming, considered too active for the Sabbath?

Jesus, however, points us to another reason given for making the Sabbath holy. In Deuteronomy 5 Moses gives the Israelites the Ten Commandments again, but this time the reason God gives for the Sabbath is this: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

Jesus tells the woman that she is set free from her infirmity. He reminds everyone in the synagogue that they untie, or set loose, their donkey and their ox for a drink on the Sabbath. And then he asks, “Should not this woman be set free on the Sabbath?”

So why do we celebrate the Sabbath?  Because God rested from his work or because he set his people free? I can tell you that many of the restrictions placed on my brother and me on Sundays when we visited my Grandparents when we were young didn’t feel anything like freedom. And what did we as young kids have to rest from anyway?

While the two reasons for the Sabbath may seem different or at odds, they actually stem from the same theological truth. God rested on the seventh day of creation because everything was complete. Everything was whole. Everything was very good. He had created a beautiful, verdant world and then populated it with an abundance of creatures. He had made the world so that his creation could flourish. But it is hard to flourish under slavery – even though we read in Exodus that the Israelites became numerous while they were slaves. God’s redemption of his people from slavery was a deliverance from oppression and a deliverance into a land flowing with milk and honey. He delivered them so that they could flourish in freedom in the land of Canaan. So God commands us to observe the Sabbath so that we may celebrate our freedom and our flourishing as we live in his creation.

God commands us to rest on the Sabbath so that one day a week we can take a break from all our striving to meet our needs, all our hustle and bustle to get our homework and our household chores done, to earn enough money for our house, food, and clothing, from our constant shopping and buying and running of errands. He calls us to stop for a day and rest in the truth that God is our creator, to remind ourselves that he is God and we are not, to remember that he has called us as his own and claimed us in baptism, that he has promised to watch over us and to provide for us. That is what it means to rest on the Sabbath – to rest in the knowledge that God is our God who loves us and watches over us.

And so, since the founding of the nation of Israel, God’s people have set aside the Sabbath to rest from their everyday labors but also to worship God, to take time to remember who God is and what he has done. But true worship goes beyond what we do on the Sabbath. The prophet Isaiah recognizes the connection between the true nature of worship and the celebration of the Sabbath. In chapter 2, the Lord says, “Stop brining meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your evil assemblies. … Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (2:13-16).

Our text this morning comes after a similar critique of Israel’s fasts. In verse 6 we read, “Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break the yoke?” In our text this morning we read, “if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (58:10). This call to seeking justice quickly leads into a call to keep the Sabbath. “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking of idols, then you will find your joy in the Lord” (13-14).

What better way, Jesus shows us, to delight on the Sabbath than by healing a woman oppressed by a crippling disease? What better way to find our joy in the Lord than by acting like God and releasing slaves, feeding the hungry, and lifting up the poor? God blessed us with the Sabbath so that we could rest in the knowledge that he wants us to enjoy his creation and flourish in it. There is therefore no better way to celebrate the Sabbath than to free those who are poor, or sick, or enslaved from what oppresses them. And so we sort of live out the Sabbath as we seek justice and love mercy throughout the week in our communities and work places.

Notice, however, in our gospel text that Luke describes the crippled woman as being crippled “by a spirit” for eighteen years. In verse 16 Jesus confirms this understanding of the situation by saying that Satan has kept this woman bound for eighteen long years. We quickly dismiss such talk of spirits as naïve. That is just how people explained sickness and mental illness and such things back then. They didn’t know the real physical cause of such things, so they just ascribed such ailments to spirits. But we modern folk know better don’t we?

Or do we? The gospel writers depict Jesus miracles’ - cleansing the lepers, opening the eyes of the blind, casting out demons – they depict these miracles as part of a spiritual battle against Satan. In chapter 10:18, when the seventy-two disciples return from proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, from healing the sick and casting out demons, Jesus proclaims, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Through his miracles and those of his disciples, Jesus demonstrates that the kingdom of God has come in his person. It is present in him and in those who follow him.

Through his miracles he overcomes the spiritual forces that stand opposed to the purposes of God which, ultimately, is the Kingdom of God – a place much like the creation God enjoyed on the seventh day. A world of wholeness and goodness in which all things and all people are able to flourish. So when Jesus heals the woman, he wins a battle over Satan. He frees her from his clutches and brings her into the Sabbath rest of the creation he is restoring. He advances the Kingdom of God. His New creation burst onto the scene. In the healing of this woman the light of Jesus’ eternal kingdom dawns.

When Luke was born, Hsien-Chih and Chichi gave him a name that won’t be particularly easy to live up to: Hsin-Heng, Everlasting Dawn. When he was baptized into the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God placed his own name on him, which also be particularly easy to live up to. When we are baptized, God puts his name on each of us and so he calls us to live in such a way to honor his name. Baptism is an anointing. It is a commissioning to live a life worthy of Christ and of God. But we, Luke included, can only do that if we each grasp on to the promises made to us and the grace assured us in our baptism. In baptism we are assured of the grace of the forgiveness of sins. We are washed of our sins and reconciled to God through Christ. In baptism God marks us as his own and anoints us. He commissions us, but he also promises to pour out his Spirit upon us as surely as the water is poured over our heads. And so it is only by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit that we are enabled to shine like the eternal dawn of God’s Kingdom. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Gracious and Almighty God, your word is a lamp unto our feet, and your word made flesh is a light to our path. Fill and shape our hearts with your Holy Spirit so that your truth, your grace, and your goodness may shine through all our words and our deed, piercing the darkness of this world with the hope of your coming kingdom. We pray in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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